Foreign-Investment Regulation Wins Surprising Supporter

It's been a year since the Dubai Ports World (DPW) imbroglio. Tomorrow, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, will convene the HCFS to ask the question: Have we learned anything? That's also what Rob Nichols and Gary Hufbauer are asking.

Frank's agenda includes putting a microscope on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Calls for reforming CFIUS' approval processes paradoxically united many Republicans with Democrats, after the DPW deal-that-wasn't seemed to have taken everyone by surprise -- including the White House. He'll also examine H.R. 556, the "National Security Foreign Investment Reform and Strengthened Transparency Act of 2007," sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

Nichols is president of the Financial Services Forum, and served as the U.S. Treasury's assistant secretary for public affairs under John Snow. He'll be testifying before the House committee tomorrow -- in favor of the legislation.

It may seem strange to some that a finance maven with Bush administration ties is backing investment regulation being put forth by an Empire State Democrat, but Nichols has a novel reason. He told CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera that enacting the regulation will actually streamline the approval process, via increased "certainty and predictability." He said that as matters stand, there is no single standard, and a gigantic "volume of [foreign investor] filings" has been generated -- and the staff handling them is "overwhelmed." But, he believes, if Congress approves a single bundle of regulations, it will keep the U.S. capital markets "open, competitive and robust."

Gary Hufbauer, the Reginald Jones senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, fears the Maloney-sponsored act may "go too far." He told Caruso-Cabrera that CFIUS never says "if a deal is OK," but only weighs in on whether it "is not OK" -- and thus approving or increasing CFIUS' clout will only obfuscate investment procedures even more.

Hufbauer said a core problem with streamlining the process is that "bureaucrats" are afraid of being squeezed out of power -- and will try to manipulate any opportunity to maintain their grip, including H.R. 556. In a nice example of bipartisanship, Hufbauer praises Frank as being "middle of the road" on the balance between commercial security and freedom -- but he defines "going too far" as "anything that gets sent back to Congress."

DPW's would-be management takeover of several U.S. ports in February 2006 became a political flash point and a foreign-relations nightmare. Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, is a key U.S. friend in the Islamic world -- and was greatly offended by implications that UAE investment and/or employment in the U.S. might constitute a security risk. On the other hand, many Americans were put off by the fact that the deal seemed to have slipped into being without proper scrutiny, in a time of war on multiple fronts. The debate blurred political boundaries, creating new alliances -- and sparking a Republican opposition against the Bush administration.