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  March 15th, 2017 | Written by

Can USTR Nominee Fulfill Trade Mandate?

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  • Trump bemoaned the confirmation holdup of his USTR nominee at first cabinet meeting.
  • Robert Lighthizer, USTR nominee, is “somebody I want very badly,” says president.
  • USTR nominee Lighthizer has represented the trade interests of China and Brazil.

At his first cabinet meeting on Monday,. President Donald Trump noted the four empty seats around the conference table, signifying the four of his nominees who have yet to receive Senate approval.

One of them is Robert Lighthizer, nominated by Trump to serve as United States Trade Representative, and described by Trump as “somebody I want very badly. The president added that “Senate Democrats are continuing to obstruct the confirmation of our nominees.” In addition to Lighthizer, Trump’s nominees for the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, and the Director of National Intelligence have also yet to be confirmed.

In the case of Lighthizer, the nominee, in addition to requiring the approval of the Senate Finance Committee, which met to consider the nomination yesterday, and the full chamber, must also receive a waiver from Congress to serve in the position at all. That’s because Lighthizer, who served as Deputy USTR during the Reagan administration, has, since leaving government service, also represented the trade interests of China and Brazil, and the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act prohibits anyone who has represented a foreign government in a trade case from becoming the USTR. It’s not impossible to receive a congressional waiver; Clinton USTR Charlene Barshefsky received one in 1997.

But the main issue for the Finance Committee and the Senate as a whole will be whether Lighthizer, who is known for his protectionist trade views, will be able to fulfill the USTR’s mission, which calls for “opening markets throughout the world to create new opportunities and higher living standards for families, farmers, manufacturers, workers, consumers, and businesses.”

Clearly, eliminating barriers that distort trade will benefit US exporters and the economy as a whole. But trade is always a two-way street, and the most important market to keep open, per the USTR mandate, is that of the United States. Given President Trump’s protectionist tendencies, as well as those of his nominee, it remains to be seen if Lighthizer, should he is confirmed, will promote trade or preside over a global trade contraction.