The United States Trade Representative (USTR) functions as the President of the United States’ lead negotiator on all international trade matters. The USTR specializes in bilateral, regional and multilateral trade and investment issues; expansion of market access for American goods and services; international commodity agreements; and negotiations affecting U.S. import policies. Over the past 40 years, free trade has become a major foreign economic policy goal of the US, and the USTR has been front and center in negotiations to remove trade barriers worldwide. Labor unions, environmentalists and consumer organizations have argued that “free trade” rarely amounts to fair trade and that the USTR has often functioned as a tool that serves the interests of the leaders of U.S. corporations.
The origins of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) reside in the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which required the President to appoint a Special Representative for Trade Negotiations and established an interagency trade organization to make recommendations to the President on policy issues arising from trade agreements. The following year, President John F. Kennedy created a new Office of the Special Trade Representative (STR) within the White House and designated two new deputies, one in Washington D.C., and the other in Geneva, Switzerland. Through the mid-1960s, STR took the lead for the U.S. in the Kennedy Round of multilateral trade negotiations held under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
In the 1970s, Congress substantially expanded the responsibilities of STR, making it responsible for the trade agreements programs under the Tariff Act of 1930, the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, and the Trade Act of 1974. The 1974 act also made STR directly accountable to both the President and the Congress for these and other trade responsibilities. Through Executive Order 11846, President Gerald Ford elevated the Special Trade Representative to cabinet level.
In 1979 a reorganization plan consolidated and further broadened STR’s duties, and renamed it the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR). It was assigned overall responsibility for developing and coordinating the implementation of U.S. trade policy; designated as the principal adviser to, and chief spokesperson for, the President on trade agreements and trade policy and as adviser on the impact of international trade on other government policies; and made responsible for asserting and protecting “the rights of the United States under all bilateral and multilateral international trade and commodity agreements.”
In 1988 the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 (pdf) reinforced the USTR’s duties and added that it coordinate trade policy with other federal agencies, advise on non-tariff barriers, international commodity agreements and other matters relating to the trade agreements program, and serve as chairman of the Trade Policy Committee. The 1988 legislation also dictated the USTR should be the senior representative on any body the President establishes to advise him on overall economic policies in which international trade matters predominate and that the USTR should be included in all economic summits and other international meetings in which international trade is a major topic.
The Uruguay Round Agreements Act, enacted in 1994, specified that the USTR had lead responsibility for all negotiations under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the WTO Agreement vastly expanded the USTR’s responsibility for implementation and enforcement of international trade terms on the American side.
The Trade and Development Act of 2000 (pdf) created within the USTR the positions and Assistant United States Trade Representative for African Affairs. The principal function of the Chief Agricultural Negotiator is to conduct trade negotiations and enforce trade agreements relating to United States agricultural interests and products. The Assistant United States Trade Representative for African Affairs serves as the chief adviser to the U.S. Trade Representative on issues of trade and investment with Africa and serves as coordinator and point of contact within the administration on such issues.
Part of the Executive Office of the President, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) develops and coordinates U.S. international trade, commodity and direct investment policy and oversees negotiations with other countries. The head of USTR is the U.S. Trade Representative, a cabinet member who serves as the President’s principal trade adviser, negotiator and spokesperson on trade issues. The USTR also serves as vice chairman of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), is a non-voting member of the Export-Import Bank, and a member of the National Advisory Council on International Monetary and Financial Policies.
The USTR specializes in bilateral, regional and multilateral trade and investment issues; expansion of market access for American goods and services; international commodity agreements; negotiations affecting U.S. import policies; oversight of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and Section 301 complaints against foreign unfair trade practices, as well as Section 1377, Section 337 and import relief cases under Section 201, as well as trade, commodity, and direct investment matters managed by international institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); trade-related intellectual property protection issues; and World Trade Organization (WTO) issues.
The USTR consults with other government agencies on trade policy matters through the Trade Policy Review Group (TPRG) and the (TPSC). These groups, administered and chaired by USTR and composed of 19 federal agencies and offices, make up the sub-cabinet level mechanism for developing and coordinating government positions on international trade and trade-related investment issues. The TPSC is the primary operating group. Supporting the TPSC are more than 90 subcommittees responsible for specialized areas and several task forces that work on particular issues. If agreement is not reached in the TPSC, then issues are taken up by the TPRG. The final tier of the interagency trade policy mechanism is the National Economic Council (NEC), chaired by the President. The NEC deputies’ committee considers memoranda from the TPRG, as well as important or controversial trade-related issues.
Working with the Private Sector
Congress established the private sector advisory committee system in 1974 to ensure that U.S. trade policy and trade negotiation objectives adequately reflect American commercial and economic interests. Congress expanded and enhanced the role of this system in subsequent trade acts, most recently the Trade Act of 2002. The advisory committees provide information and advice with respect to U.S. negotiating objectives and bargaining positions before the government enters into trade agreements.
The trade policy advisory committee system consists of 28 advisory committees, with a total membership of up approximately 700 advisers. Recommendations for candidates for committee membership are collected from a number of sources, including members of Congress, associations and organizations, publications, and other individuals who have demonstrated an interest or expertise in U.S. trade policy. Membership selection is based on qualifications, geography and the needs of the specific committee. Members pay for their own travel and other related expenses and must obtain a security clearance.
Under the Trade Act of 2002, each advisory committee is required to prepare a report on proposed trade agreements for the administration and Congress. The system is arranged in three tiers: the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN); four policy advisory committees; and 28 technical and sector advisory committees. The President appoints up to 45 ACTPN members for two-year terms. The 1974 Trade Act requires that membership broadly represent key economic sectors affected by trade. The committee considers trade policy issues in the context of the overall national interest. The USTR administers the ACTPN.
The policy advisory committees are appointed by the USTR alone or in conjunction with other cabinet officers. USTR solely manages the Intergovernmental Policy Advisory Committee (IGPAC). Those policy advisory committees managed jointly with the Departments of Agriculture and Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency are, respectively, the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee (APAC), Labor Advisory Committee (LAC), and Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee (TEPAC). Each committee provides advice based upon the perspective of its specific area.
The 28 sector and technical advisory committees are organized in two areas: industry and agriculture. Representatives are appointed jointly by the USTR and the secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture, respectively. Each sector or technical committee represents a specific sector or commodity group (such as textiles or fruits and vegetables) and provides specific technical advice concerning the effect that trade policy decisions may have on its sector.
Working with Congress
Since its creation, the USTR has maintained close consultation with Congress. Five members from each house are formally appointed under statute as official Congressional advisers on trade policy, and additional members may be appointed as advisers on particular issues or negotiations. Liaison activities between the agency and Congress are extensive.
The USTR provides detailed briefings on a regular basis for the Congressional Oversight Group, a new organization composed of members from a broad range of congressional committees. In addition, USTR officials and staff participate in hundreds of congressional “conversations” each year on subjects ranging from tariffs to textiles.
The USTR has offices in Washington D.C. and in Geneva, Switzerland. Its Geneva Office is organized to cover general WTO affairs, non-tariff agreements, agricultural policy, commodity policy, and the Harmonized System Codes. Special attention is given to textiles, with one member of the staff designated as the US representative to the Textiles Surveillance Body. The Geneva Deputy USTR is the U.S. Ambassador to the WTO and to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on commodity matters. The Geneva staff represents the United States’ interests in negotiations and in other contacts on trade and trade policy in both forums.
USTR’s Washington D.C., office is structured along seven organizational lines. Bilateral negotiations are broken down into regions: Americas; Europe and the Middle East; Southeast Asia and the Pacific; South and Central Asia; Japan, Korea and APEC; and Africa.
The agency’s sector activities cover: Agriculture; Economy & Trade; Enforcement; Services and Investment; Intellectual Property; Industry & Manufacturing; Government Procurement; Environment; Labor; National Export Initiative; Small Business; Trade & Development; and Textiles and Apparel.
The 2013 Congressional Budget Submission (pdf) provides the following breakdown of expected FY 2013 expenditures:
Personnel Compensation and Benefits $40,320,000
Travel and Transportation of Persons $5,360,000
Other Contractual Services $5,049,000
Communication, Utilities, & Misc. Charges $981,000
Supplies and Materials $307,000
Printing and Reproduction $56,000
Transportation of Things $17,000
Obligations Subtotal $53,814,000
From the Web Site of the Office of the United States Trade Representative
USTR endorsement of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement
The crafting of a new international agreement intended to stop global, large-scale piracy of films, music, and software embroiled the U.S. Trade Representative in controversy during President Barack Obama’s first term.
As the United States’ lead in talks on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the trade rep was criticized for being involved in what was labeled an attack on civil and digital rights.
ACTA was promoted by the entertainment and tech industries seeking an end to file sharing.
The agreement required Internet service providers to accept more responsibility for halting content piracy. ACTA also proposed various counter-measures, such as bandwidth throttling, web site blocking, account blocking, and aggressive search-and-seizure techniques.
In November 2010, about 80 law professors came out in opposition to ACTA, citing numerous concerns with the agreement. One question was whether it was a “treaty” that should get Senate approval or an “executive agreement” that could be signed without Senate approval. Despite the questions and criticism, the Obama administration approved ACTA in October 2011, raising the question of its constitutionality.
Did Obama Break Constitutional Law By Signing The ACTA Treaty? (The Inquisitr)
Wikileaks Cables Reveal Acta Negotiators Avoided Official Scrutiny (Computer Weekly)
TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Third World Network)
Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Office of the U.S. Trade Representative)
Trade Rep Kirk Owed $10k in Back Taxes As He Took On the Job
After being nominated to be U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk was exposed for owing $10,000 in unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.
While vetting his nomination, the Senate Finance Committee found Kirk owed taxes from 2005, 2006, and 2007 for speaking fees he donated to his alma mater. Kirk’s mistake came when he donated his fees directly to Austin College and didn’t realize he still needed to report the money as income and pay taxes on them.
Kirk also owed another $2,600 in back taxes on tickets to Dallas Mavericks basketball games that he deducted as entertainment expenses but could not substantiate with receipts.
Trade Nominee Kirk Owes $10,000 In Taxes (by Mimi Hall, USA Today)
Ron Kirk (New York Times)
Little Progress in Doha Talks
Throughout this decade, the Bush administration’s lead negotiator at world trade talks was unable to secure an agreement with developing nations over agricultural and manufacturing trade issues. It had been the hope of administration officials that the U.S. Trade Representative’s office would craft an accord for the seven-year-old Doha round before President George W. Bush left office. But these hopes foundered when the United States was unable to reach agreement with India and China on the terms of a “special safeguard mechanism” to protect farmers in developing countries from a surge in imports.
The United States accepted a compromise proposed by WTO Director General Pascal Lamy that would have allowed developing countries to hike tariffs on farm goods when imports increased 40% above the previous three-year average. But India and China wanted the safeguard to kick in after a 10% or 15% rise, and India insisted developing countries be able to raise tariffs to levels above those allowed under the 1994 Uruguay Round world trade deal.
It has now been a full decade since the negotiations began, and there still appears to be no agreement in sight.
Trade Rep Sanctions Thailand in Effort to Protect Drug Companies
In April 2008, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab placed the government of Thailand on a “priority watch list” because of that country’s effort to produce pharmaceuticals identical to those sold in the United States. Schwab issued a “Special 301 report” that claimed Thailand had infringed on the US patent rights of American pharmaceutical manufacturers.
In response to Schwab’s action, four Democratic Congressmen, led by Charles Rangel (D-New York), wrote a letter to the trade representative opposing her decision. “We urge you to set a new course that will promote both pharmaceutical innovation and the health of patients in developing countries,” urged the congressmen.
At the start of 2011, the USTR conducted its annual review in Thailand, interviewing members of both public and private sectors, and reviewing the latest reports from various international stakeholders, such as PhRMA and other NGOs. As a result of that review, USTR renewed Thailand’s posting on the “watch list,” its fourth year in a row.
Congressmen Criticize U.S. Trade Representative over Special 301 Report (by Kevin E. Noonan, Patent Docs)
The Pharmaceutical Market: Thailand (MarketResearch.com)
Democrat Demands Investigation into Gambling Accord
Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) requested in March 2008 that the U.S. Trade Representative’s office disclose trade concessions made to foreign trading partners without congressional approval. DeFazio raised the possibility of congressional intervention to void new market access commitments granted by the USTR to the European Union and other complainants as compensation for a United States trade violation regarding Internet gambling.
DeFazio encouraged his colleagues to join him in calling for the USTR to provide a copy of the concession agreement between the United States and the European Union. The USTR had rejected a Freedom of Information Act request for the same document, claiming the agreement was classified for national security reasons.
The DeFazio request came after a contentious trade dispute over Internet gambling, in which the Caribbean nation of Antigua successfully challenged the regulation of Internet gambling in the United States. The European Union conducted a 12-month investigation into the matter, concluding in March 2009 that the U.S. violated World Trade Organization rules for international trade.
Congressman Calls for U.S. Trade Representative to Provide Details of WTO Internet (Safe and Secure Internet Gambling Initiative)
EU Commission Concludes US Anti-Gambling Laws Violate WTO Rules (by Martin Harris, Poker News)
U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Colombia Faces Human Rights Concerns
In 2006, the Bush administration signed a free trade agreement with the government of Colombia that alarmed human rights organizations. The Colombian government has been accused of allowing attacks on local trade unionists by paramilitary organizations.
According to Human Rights Watch, which wrote a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab opposing the agreement, Colombia has the worst record on trade unionist killings in the world. More than 2,500 killings have taken place since 1985 and nearly 3,500 threats against trade unionists since 1991, according to a 2008 report from the National Labor School, a labor rights group in Colombia. The International Trade Union Confederation reported that 47 trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2010; 19 unionists were killed between January and August 2011.
The Colombia free trade agreement was approved in Colombia in July 2008. In spite on continuing opposition from U.S. labor unions and key Democrats over the safety of Colombian labor leaders, and concern over loss of American jobs to foreign competition, the agreement was approved by the U.S. Congress on October 12, 2011.
Colombia Trade Deal Is Threatened (by Steven R. Weisman, New York Times)
Letter to US Trade Representative Schwab on Colombia Free Trade Agreement (Human Rights Watch)
U.S. "Free Trade": Death, Drugs and Despair in Colombia (by Jonathan Tasini, Working Life)
Congress Ends 5-Year Standoff on Trade Deals in Rare Accord (by Binyamin Appelbaum and Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times)
Workers' Rights, Violence and Impunity in Colombia (AFL-CIO) (pdf)
U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Labor Issues (by Mary Jane Bolle, Congressional Research Service) (pdf)
Trade Rep Knocks Factory Used by Pentagon as “Sweatshop”
The Defense Department was caught in 2000 using a factory in Nicaragua to supply American military uniforms, even though the U.S. Trade Representative had labeled the textile operation a “sweatshop.” Several members of Congress criticized the Pentagon for obtaining apparel from the Chentex factory, which a Nicaraguan union had accused of firing more than 150 union supporters.
In an unusually stern letter, The United States trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, warned the Nicaraguan government that the United States might rescind some trade benefits unless it moved to ensure that Chentex complied with labor laws. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) said it was wrong for one federal agency, the Pentagon, to buy large amounts of apparel from Chentex while another, the trade representative’s office, had singled out the factory for criticism.
Critics Calling U.S. Supplier In Nicaragua A 'Sweatshop' (by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times)
Susan C. Schwab, 2006-2009
Rob Portman, 2005-2006
Robert B. Zoellick, 2001-2005
Charlene Barshefsky, 1997 - 2000
Michael Kantor, 1993-1996
Carla A. Hills, 1989-1993
Clayton K. Yeutter, 1985-1989
William E. Brock III, 1981-1985
Reubin O’D Askew, 1979-1981
Robert S. Strauss, 1977-1979
Frederick B. Dent, 1975-1977
William D. Eberle, 1971-1975
Carl J. Gilbert, 1969-1971
William M. Roth, 1967-1969
Christian A. Herter, 1962-1966
Barack Obama’s choice for US Trade Representative is Ron Kirk, one-time mayor of Dallas and a former lobbyist and a key supporter of Obama’s in Texas during the presidential race.
Kirk was confirmed as U.S. Trade representative on March 18, 2009.
Susan C. Schwab served as the United States Trade Representative from June 8, 2006, until the end of George W. Bush's presidency on January 20, 2009. Schwab holds a BA in political economy from Williams College, a master’s in development policy from Stanford University and a PhD in public administration and international business from George Washington University.