Congress, White House

Multiple fronts and multiple obstacles to export control

Earlier this month, in a speech at the Ex-Im Bank in Washington, President Obama announced that an export reform proposal was in the works and would be released by Defense Secretary Robert Gates “within the next couple of weeks”. It’s been a couple of weeks since that speech and the reform proposal hasn’t been released yet, although it is expected “imminently”, according to some. Also, it’s just one front of several in the effort to reduce obstacles for the domestic space industry to compete in the global market.

Another effort is HR 2410, the State Department authorization act. The legislation gives the president the authority to remove satellites and related components from the US Munitions List (USML), hence removing them from the jurisdiction of ITAR. (It would not, though, allow the export of such items to China.) Other provisions of the legislation would direct an ongoing review of the USML “to determine those technologies and goods that warrant different or additional controls”, which could benefit the space industry even if the White House didn’t exercise the provision to remove satellites and related components from the list wholesale.

The legislation passed the House last year, but for several months has been sitting in the Senate, raising fears they may never consider it. But speaking on an ITAR panel at the Satellite 2010 conference last week, David Fite, a staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee but speaking only for himself, said things were going “somewhat on schedule” compared to authorization bills in previous Congresses. That schedule would have the Senate passing its version of the authorization bill by the summer and a conference report reconciling the differences between the two in September or October.

The other front for reform is a Congressionally-mandated study underway by the Defense Department, known as the “1248 review” after the section of the FY2010 Defense Department authorization act that ordered it. The legislation requires DoD and State to “carry out an assessment of the national security risks of removing satellites and related components from the United States Munitions List”. That report, which will feature input from industry and other government agencies, will include recommendations of what space-related technologies should remain on the USML as well as other improvements to space export control policies and processes. “With all the export control reform efforts that are ongoing, we see what we’re doing as consistent with those activities,” said Jay Walding of the DoD’s Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) at the Satellite 2010 panel. That report is due to Congress in late April.

Do these multiple efforts improve the odds for some kind of long-awaited relief from current export control policies? “We are in an election year,” cautioned Fite. In his 11 years on Capitol Hill, he said, “I have never seen an environment that has been this partisan.” Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, concurred. “The danger is that this will become a political issue in an election year, which means it’s not going to be addressed on its merits, it will be addressed by slogans.” That will make it harder for reform to make its way through Congress and could also hurt the administration’s other reform efforts. Separately, he warned, the administration has to win over “the bureaucracy” that will implement any reforms, but have differing ideas of how to do it. “These are complicated issues,” Reinsch said. “People are going to have different ideas of how to do them.” In other words, while the prospects for reform are better than they have been since satellites and related components were put on the USML over a decade ago, actually enacting change is no sure thing.

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