United States Trade Representative

The Senate confirmed Robert Lighthizer as the US Trade Representative (USTR) on Thursday. The USTR is a Cabinet position, and thus Lighthizer will now serve as President Trump’s top trade negotiator.

The Senate confirmed Lighthizer with support from both Republicans and Democrats. The 82-14 vote followed months of delays prior to his confirmation.

In order to serve as USTR, Congress had to first pass a waiver to confirm him. Section 141 of the Trade Act of 1974 bars anyone who has “directly represented, aided or advised a foreign entity … in any trade negotiation, or trade dispute” from serving as USTR or Deputy USTR. In the mid-1980s Lighthizer represented Brazil in a trade dispute over ethanol with the US, and in the early 1990s he represented an electronics trade group linked to the Chinese government.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a waiver of this restriction, and the waiver passed the House and Senate and was signed into law on May 5, 2017. The confirmation of Lighthizer means that the administration can now begin the formal process to begin renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico, as well as moving forward with other trade deals.

 

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on March 14th to consider the nomination of Robert Lighthizer, of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, to serve as the next U.S. Trade Representative. The U.S. Trade Representative is the head of the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and is a Cabinet member who serves as the President’s principal trade advisor.

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Lighthizer, who has focused his career on trade litigation and policy, was a deputy trade representative during the Reagan administration, and he was chief of staff for the Senate Committee on Finance. Lighthizer is a vocal advocate for an enforcement-focused U.S. trade policy.

Former King & Spalding LLP attorney Stephen Vaughn, who worked with Lighthizer at Skadden, is the current trade representative, on an interim basis.

The selection of Lighthizer as President Trump’s pick to serve as the new U.S. Trade Representative has not been as controversial as other recent Cabinet nominees. However, Lighthizer’s status as an advocate for the Brazilian government in a 1985 trade case appears to require a waiver before he can serve as the U.S. Trade Representative.

President Trump has promised to renegotiate international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and punish companies that ship work overseas, and it appears that the selection of Lighthizer is consistent with this approach. President Trump said in announcing Lighthizer as his choice for the U.S. Trade Representative that Lighthizer would help “fight for good trade deals that put the American worker first.”

The USTR is an agency that negotiates directly with foreign governments to create trade agreements to resolve disputes and participate in global trade policy organizations. The USTR is responsible for developing and coordinating U.S. international trade, commodity, and direct investment policy, and overseeing negotiations with other countries. The USTR works closely with Congress and specifically with the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance, the two Committees with principle responsibility for international trade issues.