Considering how long and contentious it was to get this point, the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment was so cut and dried it did not even rise to the level of anti-climactic.
As its first act after the congressional elections, the House voted 365-43 to scrap the 38-year-old law. The repeal, ending one of the greatest irritants to U.S.-Russian relations, passed virtually without notice.
The effect of the repeal, which still must be approved by the Senate, is to lower trade barriers and tariffs, increase intellectual property protections and basically put the United States on the same playing field as the other 155 World Trade Organization members that trade with Russia free of such impediments.
The 1974 amendment, named after Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., and Charles Vanik, D-Ohio, was passed to force the Soviet Union to allow the free emigration of Soviet Jews and other minorities. The law worked, and by the time the Soviet Union fell in 1991 it was irrelevant.
But Congress kept it on the books, both as a lever on Russian foreign policy and because of the lawmakers' fear of being tarred as "soft on communism," even though Soviet communism didn't exist anymore except as a weapon in American politics. The result was that for 20 years, the administration had to waive the law annually.
Still, that fear was real enough to prevent a scheduled vote on the repeal immediately before the election.
Repealing the law would give American farmers and exporters a shot at a potentially lucrative market where, thanks to Jackson-Vanik, they now play only a small role.
U.S. exports to Russia were worth $11 billion last year, an amount that could double in five years, according to trade groups. The U.S. accounts for only 4.5 percent of Russian imports, compared to 40 percent for the Europeans and 16 percent for the Chinese.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment is part of a bill that still holds irritants for the Russians. It is named after a Russian human rights lawyer and political opposition figure, Sergei Magnitsky, who died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian jail three years ago.
The House version imposes travel restrictions on Russian human rights abusers, prompting the Russian foreign ministry to denounce it as "a defiantly unfriendly and provocative attack," one that promises a "tough response from our side." Considering the benefits the repeal will bring Russia, it is probably safe to dismiss this as face-saving bluster. The Russians already have expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development. Any more "tough responses" would only hurt them worse than us.
The Senate should quickly pass, and the White House sign, this bill.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.