WTO reform

U.S. approach to trade – USTR Lighthizer’s Foreign Affairs article and Congressional testimony on June 17

Every year, the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Ways and Means and the U.S. Senate Finance Committee hold hearings to understand the Administration’s trade agenda for the year. This year both Committees held hearings on June 17 where the sole Administration witness was U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Ambassador Lighthizer had separately prepared an article for Foreign Affairs entitled “How to Make Trade Work for Workers, Charting a Path Between Protectionism and Globalism” which had been reviewed by many of the Committee members prior to the hearings. The article is available here and presents the Trump Administration’s approach to trade policy. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-09/how-make-trade-work-workers.

The Foreign Affairs article

Ambassador Lighthizer uses the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to state that it is time for discussions to reach a new consensus on “the future of U.S. trade policy.” Amb. Lighthizer’s summary of the approach of the current Administration are repeated below:

“That debate should start with a fundamental question: What should the objective of trade policy be? Some view trade through the lens of foreign policy, arguing that tariffs should be lowered or raised in order to achieve geopolitical goals. Others view trade strictly through the lens of economic efficiency, contending that the sole objective of trade policy should be to maximize overall output. But what most Americans want is something else: a trade policy that supports the kind of society they want to live in. To that end, the right policy is one that makes it possible for most citizens, including those without college educations, to access the middle class through stable, wellpaying jobs.

“That is precisely the approach the Trump administration is taking. It has broken with the orthodoxies of free-trade religion at times, but contrary to what critics have charged, it has not embraced protectionism and autarky. Instead, it has sought to balance the benefits of trade liberalization
with policies that prioritize the dignity of work.”

The paper reviews the history of trade liberalization, what the Administration views as its limits, their perception that many trade advocates have extolled the benefits of liberalization while discounting or ignoring the economic costs of liberalization. Unlike other areas of government policy, trade liberalization was viewed as an absolute good and not weighed against the costs of the policy in fact.

The section of the article entitled “The dark side of free trade” reviews the steep economic and human costs for the United States over the period 2000-2016 noting the loss of manufacturing jobs, stagnation of median household incomes, and the devastation to the populations left behind in manufacturing locations. While outsourcing reduces costs, it increases vulnerabilities and reduces the nation’s ability to respond to certain situations, such as the pandemic.

Amb. Lighthizer opines that “A sensible trade policy strikes a balance among economic security, economic efficiency, and the needs of working people.” He reviews how he believes the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (“USMCA”) achieves that balance looking at specific improvements from NAFTA.

The article then goes on to look at “two of the most significant trade challenges [the U.S.] will face in the coming years: market-distorting state capitalism in China and a dysfunctional WTO.”

The Trump Administration changed the approach of trying to deal with China’s trade policy issues pursued by prior Administration (e.g., through bilateral talks and through the WTO dispute settlement system) by going after some of the larger issues through the section 301 investigation with resulting tariffs on imports from China which led to the creation of the Phase 1 Agreement and, depending on success of Phase 1, a potential Phase 2.

On the WTO, the article focuses on the WTO’s Appellate Body and its deviation from its original purpose.

“The challenges in the WTO are also vexing. Like many international organizations, the WTO has strayed from its original mission. Designed as a forum for negotiating trade rules, it has become chiefly a litigation society. Until recently, the organization’s dispute-resolution process was led by its seven-member Appellate Body, which had come to see itself as the promulgator of a new common law of free trade, one that was largely untethered from the actual rules agreed to by the WTO’s members. The Appellate Body routinely issued rulings that made it harder for states to combat unfair trade practices and safeguard jobs. This was one of the reasons why the Trump administration refused to consent to new appointments to it, and on December 11, 2019, the Appellate Body ceased functioning when its membership dipped below the number needed to hear a case.

“The United States should not agree to any mechanism that would revive or replace the Appellate Body until it is clear that the WTO’s dispute-resolution process can ensure members’ flexibility to pursue a balanced, worker-focused trade policy. Until then, the United States is better off resolving disputes with trading partners through negotiations—as it did from 1947, when the General Agreement on Tarifs and Trade was signed, until 1994, when the WTO was created—rather than under a made-up jurisprudence that undermines U.S. sovereignty and threatens American jobs.”

Congressional Hearings

The Congressional hearings provide the opportunity for the Administration to present its record of accomplishments as well as identifying pressing issues being pursued and for members of Congress to inquire about specific issues of importance to their constituents, to challenge the narrative of the Administration (typically by the opposition party), to press for commitments on actions deemed of importance and otherwise to gain clarification of matters of interest to Congressional members.

Yesterday’s hearings had all of the above. Amb. Lighthizer’s opening statement to both Committees stressed what the Administration viewed itself as having achieved and the benefits to working Americans with a focus on China (and the US-China Phase 1 Agreement), USMCA, the US-Japan Phase 1, disputes at the WTO and WTO reform proposals as well as the Administration’s game plan for the WTO, for pending negotiations with the U.K. and Kenya and for WTO reform, and enforcement of existing agreements. His opening statement to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee is embedded below but mirrors his prepared statement to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

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Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Wyden (D-OR) in his opening statement painted a different picture of the first three years of the Trump Administration’s trade agenda and whether successes had been achieved. His statement is embedded below.

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There were many questions in both chambers on the USMCA agreement, with particular focus on enforcement of labor, environment and other issues. With the final revised USMCA receiving strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and with the agreement taking effect on July 1st, many of the questions flagged areas where one of the countries was viewed as not in compliance with obligations in the Agreement (e.g., energy practices in Mexico) and commitments by Amb. Lighthizer to pursue matters where compliance wasn’t in place.

On the issue of Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum products from Canada and Mexico, some members inquired whether examining imposition of such tariffs would be consistent with U.S. agreement with the two countries which had excluded them from the additional tariffs. Amb. Lighthizer reviewed that the agreement excluded Canada and Mexico where volumes remained at historic levels. If the U.S. found surges and decided to impose the tariffs, any retaliation by Canada or Mexico would be limited to the same sectors (i.e., could not retaliate against agricultural products). Amb. Lighthizer indicated that the U.S. was considering whether tariffs should be imposed in light of surges that had been occurring.

There were also many questions about the U.S.-China Agreement with a focus on whether China was likely to meet its obligations on the purchase of goods (with most questions focused on agricultural purchases). Ranking Member Wyden (D-OR) cited a Peterson Institute paper claiming poor compliance with purchase commitments. See https://www.piie.com/research/piie-charts/us-china-phase-one-tracker-chinas-purchases-us-goods Amb. Lighthizer on a number of occasions reviewed what were described as inadequacies in the Peterson data and reviewed strong growth in orders from China on agricultural goods to the present time (vs. exports through April shown in the Peterson graphs which look at January-April, even though the agreement didn’t take effect until February 14, 2020).

There were many questions about reshoring manufacturing of medical goods, particularly personal protective equipment (“PPE”), challenges to such reshoring because of the failure of the Administration to enter into long-term contracts to permit manufacturing to start up, whether broader tariff exclusions should be provided to imports of such products while there were inadequate supplies, concerns about existing supplies of PPEs amidst the ongoing pandemic. The issue featured prominently in Senate Finance Committee Chairman Grassley’s (R-IA) opening statement and in the questions of a number of Senators and House Representatives in the two sessions. Amb. Lighthizer discussed use of tariffs as a longer term issue to support reshoring and contested arguments that the Administration had not done enough to secure supplies during the pandemic. Chairman Grassley’s opening statement is embedded below.

Grassley-at-Hearing-on-the-President

There was also interest in both Houses of the ongoing or soon to be initiated FTA negotiations with the United Kingdom (ongoing, two rounds completed) and with Kenya (to start after July 4). There were questions or statements of support for the U.S.-Japan Phase 1 Agreement particularly by members with agricultural export interests to Japan.

On U.S.-EU trade relations, there were a few questions raised dealing either with the perceived abuse of geographical indications on food products by the EU and its push to get other countries to accept EU indications or with changing EU SPS provisions that appear to members of Congress and USTR as not science based. Amb. Lighthizer characterized both as protectionist trends from our friends in the EU. He also indicated that USTR is considering whether the U.S. should initiate a 301 investigation on the non-science based SPS measures.

On digital services taxes, questions arose about yesterday’s announced U.S. withdrawal from the OECD negotiations. Amb. Lighthizer reviewed USTR’s role in conducting 301 investigations first on France and now on a host of other countries where taxes are being imposed or considered on digital services on a discriminatory basis and on companies with no physical presence in countries imposing the taxes. The OECD effort was started to achieve a global agreement that could be accepted by all. The U.S. withdrew from the talks based on its view that the talks were building in discrimination against U.S. companies. If there is not a solution in the OECD, Amb. Lighthizer made it clear that results from the 301 investigations would permit the U.S. to take appropriate action against countries who proceed without a global agreement.

While Amb. Lighthizer’s opening statement had reviewed various WTO issues relevant to reform efforts — addressing Appellate Body; putting teeth into WTO notification requirements; clarifying which Members are eligible for special and differential treatment, and the concern about bound tariffs which have proven not to reflect current economic realities between countries, there were few questions about WTO reform during the two hearings. Amb. Lighthizer did go through the challenge of a WTO system where tariffs are bound, where the U.S. over 70 years has removed the vast majority of its tariffs and many other countries have maintained very high bound and even applied tariffs with little likelihood that those tariffs would be reduced regardless of the economic advances made by countries with high bindings. India and Indonesia were two of the countries used as examples of where bound tariffs today of such countries were not reflective of their economic advances and hence were unfair to the U.S.

There were also questions that arose from press reports about statements President Trump allegedly made to President Xi in Japan seeking China’s help in his reelection effort and to reports about two USTR professional staff members who had set up a webpage and been contacting automotive companies about helping them with USMCA compliance at a time when they were still USTR employees. Amb. Lighthizer was in a meeting with the U.S. and Chinese Presidents in Osaka, Japan in 2019 and denied that any request for assistance was made by President Trump at that meeting. On the latter issue, Amb. Lighthizer indicated that political appointees clearly could not do what was done by professional staff and that the professional staff had reportedly sought and obtained clearance from the USTR ethics office.

Conclusion

It has long been obvious that the Trump Administration was adopting a significantly different approach to trade policy than had been pursued by prior Administrations over recent decades. Ambassador Lighthizer’s Foreign Affairs article provides an articulation of the underlying concerns that have driven the Administration to the current policy approach. While there are many who remain skeptical about the benefits vs. costs flowing from the modified approach being pursued by the Trump Administration, there is little question that the change in approach has gotten attention of trading partners and at least some important modifications in agreements.

The USMCA has many novel elements, many of which are interconnected in terms of achieving stated objectives. Changes in rules of origin coupled with a high level of labor needing to make a minimum level of hourly wages and labor enforcement provisions are intended to address longstanding concerns of labor and is consistent with Amb. Lighthizer’s articulated objective of making trade work for workers. The willingness to work with the Democrats to achieve the labor and environment provisions contained in the revised agreement objectives permitted broad bipartisan support when implementing legislation was considered in the United States. Similarly, the USMCA provision of a sixteen year sunset of the agreement, extendable every six years should permit Canada, Mexico and the United States to update the agreement on a regular basis preventing the loss of relevance or coverage that normal FTAs have experienced with the passage of time.

On the importance of the U.S. relationship with China, the current Administration has come to the conclusion that China is not interested in converting to a market economy in fact. Reciprocity is unlikely under WTO Agreements since the WTO is premised on market economy Members, and the WTO agreements do not address many of the distortions flowing from the Chinese-style economy. Thus, the Administration has pursued a different approach to achieve a different outcome and greater reciprocity. The importance of the U.S.-China Phase 1 is best understood in that context. While the jury is out on how successful the Phase 1 Agreement will be, Amb. Lighthizer’s review of USTR information on growing orders from China in agriculture and China’s implementation of many of the specific commitments in the SPS area and other areas is encouraging.

On the WTO, the U.S. is looking for fundamental reform to achieve an organization that has rules for all and that reflects the changing capabilities of Members. With the differences in views of the purpose of the Appellate Body between the U.S. and the EU (and others), there is no likelihood of rapid restoration of the Appellate Body. With the EU moving towards taking unilateral action against Members who don’t engage in a second stage review of disputes with them, we are likely facing a period of heightened trade tensions between the U.S. and the EU.

Other U.S. proposals that have already been made at the WTO (notification requirements; eligibility for special and differential treatment; WTO being an organization for market economies ) or are working on jointly with others (e.g., EU and Japan on industrial subsidies and state-owned enterprises), have different challenges in terms of reaching consensus to adopt. The issue not yet formally raised on revisiting tariff bindings and/or how the system addresses changes in economic might over time with existing bindings would seem to require a further major shock to the operation of the WTO to have any chance of being considered.

As trading partners struggle to find new sources of revenue, particularly following the economic challenges flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic, many have looked to tax foreign companies in the digital services space. As the U.S. has many of the major players, there are looming major confrontations over EU and other country efforts to impose discriminatory taxes. The U.S. will defend its interests if an OECD agreed approach cannot be found. Based on yesterday’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the OECD process, major disputes are likely by the end of 2020.

The Trump Administration will continue to utilize all legal tools available to it under U.S. law and pursuant to various Agreements to achieve a rebalancing of the U.S. trade relationship with our major trading partners and with all nations. The Foreign Affairs article provides the Administration’s logic for the approach being pursued.