Nomination for USTR remains bottled up in the Senate Finance Committee after vote postponed
Senate consideration of Robert Lighthizer to be U.S. Trade Representative has been delayed until Congress returns from a two week recess, leaving President Trump without one of his key advisors on trade policy as he looks to reorient economic relations with Mexico, Canada, China and other nations.
The Finance Committee was scheduled to vote Thursday morning on his nomination and pass the recommendation to the full Senate for confirmation, but Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced not enough Committee members were present to reach a quorum because of scheduling conflicts. He expressed hope the nomination would move forward soon after the Senate returns from its break April 24.
Lighthizer, who once served as a deputy trade representative under President Ronald Reagan and has had a long career representing U.S. steel companies pursuing remedies for trade violations by foreign competitors, is being held up because he once represented the government of Brazil in a private trade dispute with U.S. companies.
Under law, anyone who represented a foreign government in a trade dispute or negotiation is ineligible to be the U.S. Trade Representative, although whether the standard applies to cases not involving the U.S. government is open to debate. Lighthizer needs a waiver from Congress to get by the current requirement and has support on both sides of the aisle.
But Democrats are using their leverage at the moment to try and force Republicans to agree to unrelated legislation that would protect retired coal miners who are in danger of losing retirement and healthcare benefits if an industry pension plan goes under.
Finance Committee leaders are working to address Democrats concerns and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he is “confident that we can find a way to have a bipartisan mark up of Mr. Lighthizer.”
Republicans could try to pass a waiver without Democrats if they have enough votes and Hill observers say the likely vehicle for a floor vote would be to attach it to a continuing resolution.
Republicans could try to pass a waiver without Democrats if they have enough votes and Hill observers say the likely vehicle for a floor vote would be to attach it to a continuing resolution that Congress must vote on later this month to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
A continuing resolution is necessary for departments and agencies to continue operating because Congress didn’t pass full-year annual appropriations bills for the executive branch. A “CR” provides legal authority for agencies to obligate more money, with funding provided at prior-year levels without any adjustments. Congressional leaders are trying to finish the appropriations bills for the remainder of the year before the government runs out of money on April 28, but the tight legislative schedule makes it more likely they will have to resort to a continuing resolution.
“Bob Lighthizer has the experience and institutional knowledge necessary to serve as the next USTR,” Hatch said in remarks before the Finance Committee began an IRS oversight hearing. “In order to ensure congressional input on trade agreements that protect intellectual property rights, benefit American families and businesses and promote U.S. global competitiveness, we must have a USTR in place. Mr. Lighthizer’s nomination has been subject to unprecedented delay and unrelated demands for far too long, and we cannot afford to have this crucial position void of leadership any longer.
“Throughout his confirmation hearing he demonstrated a clear vision and dedication to advancing a strong trade agenda, which many of my Democratic colleagues praised. It is my hope my Democratic colleagues remove their unrelated demands and work with us to advance his nomination through the Committee for full Senate consideration.”
Others believe that Lighthizer has been overly litigious in using trade laws to protect American companies from import competition and would drive a wedge between the United States and its allies.
“His many years of litigation on behalf of the American steel industry have damaged relations with trade partners, in addition to forcing U.S. firms and consumers to pay higher prices,” Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy think tank, said in a statement. “The Office of U.S. Trade Representative should lead the way in promoting strong, unfettered trade relationships vital for the future of the U.S. and global economies. Businesses depend on trade to deliver the best products and prices to consumers, which leads to job creation and economic growth. Mr. Lighthizer’s protectionist trade beliefs and positions put those gains from trade at risk. For these reasons, CEI opposes his appointment to USTR.”