by Michael Stumo, CEO of CPA
We have never seen this before. The US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, is being brutally direct with free trade zombies in Congress and the multinational import lobby - i.e. the swamp - in charting a new pro-American direction on trade. Voters sought a change in trade policy when electing President Trump, but Congress has not changed. Neither have the special interests. Lighthizer faced a conundrum. He had to choose.
The unspoken rule in the Washington swamp is that anybody talking about trade must say phrases like “grow export opportunities,” “increase two-way trade,” and “lower tariff barriers.” This shows that you are part of the club. Everybody nods and agrees. It is the conventional wisdom—these things must simply be true and good because everybody says them.
The swamp aggressively enforces its dogma. Heretics who refuse to follow their data-free theology are dismissed, attacked, ignored, or heckled.
But Trade Ambassador Lighthizer does not say these soothing “I’m with you” phrases. He told House Ways & Means Committee members last week that he was working to please “an audience of one”—President Trump—and not Congress as he plods on to reshape the future of American trade policy. Lighthizer apparently feels the president has his back.
The House Ways & Means Committee has never rejected a trade agreement. The Republicans on the committee all voted to give Fast Track Trade Authority to President Obama. They are upset that Ambassador Lighthizer is proposing big changes in NAFTA negotiations. Those changes include sunsetting the deal after five years so a new approval vote is needed, limiting international tribunals that let foreign corporations sue the US for unlimited sums of alleged damages, tightening rules of origin to increase US manufacturing content in NAFTA products, and strengthening other protections for American producers.
Committee members told reporters that they are “concerned”, which is government-speak for “freaked out.” This was only the latest of a series of meetings and hearings called by the Committee, as well as public statements issued by the Committee, to head off any changes in trade policy.
Certainly Lighthizer could capitulate to the Ways & Means Committee which must approve a newly negotiated NAFTA before it goes to the House floor. Everyone does it.
Former trade ambassador Michael Froman, a free trade zombie from Citigroup, focused his same-old-same-old trade negotiation efforts on pleasing the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. Obama had Froman’s back. Candidate Obama, who campaigned on “Hope and Change,” became the “Keep on Offshoring Jobs” president.
But instead of capitulating, Lighthizer said his first stop for approval is President Trump. That is the only audience that matters right now. We have not seen this movie before.
The multinational import lobby is “alarmed.”
This special interest lobby is made up of the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable. Fake farm and ranch groups are also part of the import lobby because they are funded or controlled by multinational meatpackers owned by Brazilians (JBS), Chinese (Smithfield Foods) and, yes, even Americans (Cargill) who do not allow pro-farmer policy to be advocated if it interferes with low priced imports. They are used to getting their way.
The import lobby is institutionalized in the trade negotiations process through statutorily created Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs). A 1974 law created these committees to provide private sector input and advice to government officials negotiating trade deals. But the ITACs have been transformed into an institutionalized crony capitalist influence within the government. Their influence is on the wane now.
So the special interests are holding press conferences, calling reporters, donating to favored congressmen, and holding joint lobby days on Capitol Hill to frustrate the Trump Administration’s efforts. Last week, they visited 260 offices on Capitol Hill to whine that they are no longer getting their way.
Mexico and Canada are pleased with the swamp’s diligent efforts, because they also oppose efforts to increase American production and jobs.
President Trump made some mistakes in appointing officials who possess a globalist mindset and who oppose his America First trade agenda. But Ambassador Lighthizer was not one of those mistakes. He is exhibiting courage seldom seen among high-ranking White House officials as he looks to to chart a new course for the American economy. Thankfully, Lighthizer is pressing an agenda to help benefit the whole country, not just the special interests. And that’s an encouraging sign when it comes to confronting the Swamp.
Michael Stumo is the CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America.