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Lighthizer Confirmed as U.S. Trade Representative

The Senate voted 82-14 on 11 May to confirm Robert Lighthizer as U.S. trade representative. Lighthizer, a long-time trade attorney who served as deputy USTR under President Reagan, is expected to lead a more enforcement-oriented approach to trade policy under the Trump administration.

Lighthizer was confirmed despite opposition from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. In a 10 May letter the two senators expressed alarm at Lighthizer’s “well-known” scepticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement (which includes the United States, Canada and Mexico), saying he did not appear to understand its positive economic benefits and the “millions of jobs” it has created. President Trump has made the opposite argument, claiming NAFTA has in fact resulted in the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and has pledged to renegotiate it to obtain better terms for the United States. Lighthizer recently delivered to Congress a 90-day advance notification of the beginning of that process, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the Trump administration will pursue a “far more aggressive meeting schedule” than has previously been the case.

The two senators also worried that Lighthizer “would not negotiate trade deals that would protect the American consumer and expand economic growth.” They attributed this concern to Lighthizer’s own “vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts in our trade policies” as well as the Trump administration’s “ongoing, incoherent, and inconsistent trade message.” Since confirming a USTR grants the administration additional legal authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress must consider under fast track procedures, the senators said confirming Lighthizer without understanding how he intends to use such powers “would be irresponsible.”

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