Background

Senators from both parties criticized U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai this week for not being ambitious enough in formulating U.S. trade policy and for not doing enough to consult them on related issues.

In a May 9 letter to Tai and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a bipartisan group of 24 senators asserted that the Biden administration is not pursuing “meaningful and enforceable market access commitments” with trading partners and that this lack of ambition “jeopardizes America’s competitiveness, resilience, and security in the long term.” For example, they said, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (which could be officially launched later this month) “is not expected to include critical market access commitments,” which not only puts U.S. exporters at a competitive disadvantage in the global market but also renders the IPEF “not a credible counterweight to the market-opening agreements that other countries, including China, are actively advancing.”

The senators also urged the administration to resume negotiating free trade agreements, rejecting what they said was Tai’s implication in recent comments to lawmakers that they are “relics of the past.” Most of the U.S.’ existing FTAs were implemented in the past two decades, they pointed out, and the greater market access opportunities those FTAs have provided have contributed to national prosperity by creating more high-paying jobs for workers and allowing access to lower-cost goods for consumers. But “global trade does not simply pause until the administration deems it worthy of pursuing,” the senators wrote, and if the U.S. does not act quickly to further open foreign markets “our workers and producers will continue to lose ground to competitors,” particularly China.

In a separate letter dated May 10, a smaller but still bipartisan group of senators said Tai needs to do a better job of consulting with Congress on trade initiatives. Noting that “administrations of both parties have struggled to comply with the terms Congress has provided to ensure its views are reflected in our trade policy,” the letter said Tai should “provide Congress with timely, substantive briefings on negotiations and share all U.S. negotiating texts before the administration commits the United States to a particular negotiating position or outcome.”

The senators cited a recent multilateral agreement on waiving intellectual property rights with respect to COVID-19 vaccines as one recent example of USTR’s “failure to consult properly with Congress” and expressed concern that this approach “not be replicated in other areas,” including negotiations on the IPEF, potential agreements with World Trade Organization members, and bilateral discussions with countries such as the United Kingdom. USTR has an obligation to consult with Congress on such developments “regardless of whether the administration believes any eventual agreement from such negotiations will require formal congressional approval,” the senators said.

For more information on the trade policy process, please contact Nicole Bivens Collinson at (202) 730-4956 or via email.

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