Lighthizer tells Senate Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda won’t hurt exporters.
- By Jessica HolzerJessica Holzer is an editor at Foreign Policy. She previously covered financial regulation for The Wall Street Journal.
President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. trade representative assured senators the administration’s protectionist rhetoric wouldn’t translate into fewer markets for American exports at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Robert Lighthizer breezed through the hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, where his resume as a seasoned trade lawyer and his tough-on-China views seemed to play well with many members of the panel.
The Trump administration is placing a bet that a huge shakeup in U.S. trade policy will usher in a new era for the U.S. economy, lifting stagnant wages and bringing manufacturing jobs back to America’s heartland. The marked shift toward protectionism has unsettled many in Trump’s party and is even stirring controversy in the White House, where it has pitted free-market Republicans against self-described economic nationalists.
The trade representative normally has wide discretion to set trade policy, but it’s not clear in this case that Lighthizer will be given full control given the competing factions seeking to shape this all-important policy area. Still, his stature as a trade heavyweight suggests he will play a large role.
On Tuesday, Lighthizer got a particularly warm reception from Democrats from manufacturing states who share his concerns about China and who hope he will be an ally in acting aggressively to counter its trade practices. Meanwhile, he received friendly but more pointed questions from Republicans, who seemed concerned about the administration’s tone on trade and sought assurances from Lighthizer that he wouldn’t pursue policies that would help manufacturers at the expense of farmers.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R.- Kan.), noting America’s $20 billion trade surplus in agriculture, asked him, “Will you prioritize not only what our country makes but also what we grow?” he asked.
“I have a long history with agriculture,” responded Lighthizer, who was deputy trade representative under Ronald Reagan. “I assure you we will prioritize agriculture.”
For her part, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D.- Mich.) signaled her approval of the Trump administration’s China rhetoric, but worried it wouldn’t translate into action. Lighthizer assured her the president was “completely committed to the America First agenda, which I completely subscribe to.”
She asked Lighthizer if the Chinese government’s recent approval of a slew of trademarks for businesses bearing the Trump name would compromise his dealings with China. “Let me assure the senator, this is not going to be a problem,” Lighthizer said.
Trump has set himself apart from the traditionally free-trading GOP, and has alarmed trade experts with his appointment of Peter Navarro, an economist who espouses out-of-the-mainstream views on trade, to head a trade council within his administration. Against this backdrop, Lighthizer, who some also view as protectionist, is seen as a moderating force due to his years as a trade negotiator. Some say this makes him unlikely to take a slash-and-burn approach to trade relations.
On Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R.- Penn.) specifically raised Navarro and his fixation on bilateral trade deficits. He warned that reducing imports would invite retaliation and give American consumers fewer choices. “The fact is: historically trade deficits do not harm manufacturing or hurt employment,” he told Lighthizer.
Lighthizer is set to pass the Senate with broad support, but the timing of the vote is uncertain because he may need a special waiver due to his past work representing China and Brazil in trade disputes. A U.S. law bars people who represented foreign governments from serving as the trade representative.
The waiver, which would require a separate vote in both the House and the Senate, has become bogged down after Senate Democrats attempted to tie it to legislation authorizing health benefits for miners, angering Republicans. The Trump administration and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R.- Utah) are now arguing Lighthizer doesn’t need the waiver. But in Tuesday’s hearing, Democrats seemed insistent that he does.
“What we’re saying to Republicans is, ‘Just get this Miners Protection Act done.’ That would of course move forward Lighthizer’s confirmation,” Sen. Bob Casey (D.- Penn.) said.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to slap tariffs of up to 45 percent on goods from China, and denounced the North American Free Trade Agreement as a bad deal for American manufacturing workers. Trump has tapped Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to be the point man to renegotiate the deal, a job normally reserved for the trade representative, stirring confusion about what role, if any, Lighthizer would actually play in those talks. Ross said last week he would soon trigger the 90-day process to renegotiate the deal.
In the hearing Tuesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R.-La.) noted that NAFTA had helped foster a burgeoning middle class in Mexico, creating a new market for U.S. goods. “My concern is that if we are not careful, this could suffer,” he said.
Lighthizer responded that Trump didn’t intend to hurt any of the “winners” from NAFTA but insisted that the trade pact needed a revamp. The three-way trade deal was extensively revised in the context of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which included the United States, Canada, and Mexico, but Trump threw that overboard when he scrapped the 12-nation deal soon after taking office.
“I realize the anxiety and the concern but I think there’s a general consensus that NAFTA needs revision. It’s clearly outdated,” he said.
Photo credit: Mark Lyons / Stringer