Friday, September 18, 2009

The Obama Administration's Tangible Demotion of Trade Policy

Myriad actions by the Obama Administration imply that the President has decided to sacrifice free trade policies in order to placate favored domestic constituencies or secure prioritized domestic policy goals.  Consider the following examples: 
  • Signing the Stimulus* Bill, despite its much-maligned "Buy American" provisions;
  • Signing the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, despite provisions (i) banning Mexican trucks from US roads and Chinese chicken from US markets; (ii) "monitoring" Vietnamese and Chinese textiles; and (iii) enabling mandatory country labeling for all imported food;
  • Delaying (PDF at pp. 36-37) consideration of completed FTAs with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in order to secure votes on key legislation like Cap and Trade;
  • Delaying a scheduled press conference on key multilateral trade negotiations in order to go golfing; and 
  • Of course, most recently banning Chinese tires from the US market in order to ensure support from US labor unions and their congressional supporters to pass health care legislation.
In each case, the President has quietly chosen his favorite domestic issues over the red-headed stepchild that has become US trade policy (much to the repeated and growing consternation of US consumers, businesses and our trading partners). Of course, this new hierarchy should come as no surprise to people paying close attention (all 6 of us) since Obama was elected last year.  Indeed, his first choice for United States Trade Representative, Rep. Javier Becerra (D-CA), turned down the position because he believed that "trade was not a priority for Obama."  Boy, was he right.

Nevertheless, each of the examples above merely implies that the Administration has demoted trade policy in order to advance domestic priorities.  But according to story earlier this week from Law360, President Obama's policy priorities are also evident in a much more tangible area - Executive Branch job vacancies:
More than seven months into the Obama administration, numerous posts in the federal government dealing with international trade have yet to be filled, and while it's not unusual for such posts to take some time to fill, the number of vacancies has slowed the progress of some trade initiatives, according to attorneys.

There remain trade-related vacancies in several departments, including the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State. In some cases, President Barack Obama has named nominees who are awaiting confirmation, while in others, no nominee has been announced.

With so many positions vacant, the development of trade policy under Obama has lagged, said Matthew Nolan, a partner at Arent Fox LLP.

There aren't people in place to develop, refine and implement new policies, and the people filling the roles in an acting capacity are unlikely to put forth new initiatives, Nolan said.

The administration is clearly dealing with many other issues, but the vacancies mean that Obama does not have staff laying the groundwork for future trade policy once health care and other issues are off the agenda, he said. ...
The article goes on to list the key vacancies in the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce, as well as USTR.  (Hint: there are a lot of them.)  Indeed, it's quite the depressing state of affairs for those of us who, you know, care about "little things" like jumpstarting the reeling US and global economies and solidifying important strategic alliances in Latin America and Asia, and understand the importance of a strong Presidential commitment to advancing an American free trade agenda.  Alas.

On the bright side (I guess), the Obama administration's burial of trade policy totally frees me up from blogging on real and significant breakthroughs in the still-stalled Doha Round negotiations or the jittery G-20 summit in Pittsburgh later this month.  The United States has led on every significant free trade initiative in the last 60-plus years, and such leadership is virtually impossible without a full technical staff to implement the White House's high-level commitments.  Thus, without such a staff in place, it looks like I'm going to need to find something else to do this fall.

Thank goodness for the NFL.

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