When the 5,593-page spending bill and coronavirus relief package was unveiled in the US Congress on Monday just hours before its passage, it set off the usual scramble among policy observers to find out which unrelated bills had been bolted on to the must-pass legislation.
Among the amendments, known on Capitol Hill as “riders”, was a bill strengthening US support for human rights in Tibet, provisions to create public museums to honour the history of women and Latinos, and legislation to protect insured patients from surprise medical bills.
But for advocates of a stronger US challenge of Beijing’s human rights record, there was one prominent omission: legislation that would ban all imports from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region over concerns about widespread forced labour there.
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The bill, called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, was awaiting approval in the Senate, having breezed through the House of Representatives in September by an overwhelming 406-3 vote.
But with the last major legislative order of this congressional session concluded, any hope that the swell of bipartisan support for a stronger US policy to counter Beijing would see the forced labour bill enacted this year has been extinguished.
After approval of the omnibus spending bill and coronavirus relief package late on Monday, lawmakers have begun returning home for the winter break. They are expected to return to Capitol Hill only if President Donald Trump rejects the military budget bill passed this month, requiring a congressional vote to override the veto.
It is possible that lawmakers will see to other legislative business should they return for an override vote, but it is unlikely that they would touch hefty foreign policy matters.
“Unfortunately there is no more movement in the Senate,” said a senior congressional staffer close to the forced labour legislation, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations. “We will try again right out of the gate in the new Congress.”
Introduced in March, the forced labour bill would prohibit US importers from sourcing any goods originating in Xinjiang unless they could provide conclusive evidence that forced labour was not involved in their production. That would reverse the current calculus of US customs authorities, which seize imports if there is evidence they were produced using forced labour.
Contrary to media reports, US government allegations and scholarly research, Beijing denies the existence of forced labour in Xinjiang.
While applauded by labour rights watchdog groups and human rights advocates, the legislation provoked a wave of lobbying efforts from multinational corporations and trade associations worried about its impact on their supply chains.
Coca-Cola, which sources sugar from Xinjiang, hired Peter Roskam, a former high-ranking Republican congressman from Illinois, to lobby on the bill, according to disclosure records reviewed by the South China Morning Post.
Apple and the National Retail Federation – whose members include Macy’s, Ralph Lauren, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton – hired the long-time former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a lobbyist on the bill, the records show.
Nike sent at least seven different lobbying firms to Capitol Hill over the legislation, according to the same public records.
“Some of the biggest brand names are hiding behind their trade associations, so as they don’t have their fingerprints on anything that goes on,” Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who led the forced labour bill in the House of Representatives, said this month.
Amid the wave of lobbying, staffers were scrambling as recently as last week to address some senators’ concerns with the bill’s language, according to another senior congressional aide not authorised to speak on the record.
A revised version of the bill was drafted and had secured the crucial backing of Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but had not been approved by Democrats, the aide said, adding that the changes had not “gutted” the substance of the bill in any way.
The bill’s backers in both chambers had committed to rejecting any pressure that would have hollowed out the act’s core provisions, preferring to reintroduce the bill in the next session rather than squeeze through a watered down bill.
“Any weakening of this bill in the Senate, we will not accept it in the House,” McGovern said as the bill stalled. “And then we will be forced to come back early next year and do this again.”
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