WASHINGTON, May 11, 2017 – Robert Lighthizer, an international trade lawyer schooled in fighting trade battles with China and other countries, easily won Senate confirmation as U.S. Trade Representative, putting in place the last major piece of President Trump’s trade team.
Democrats delayed action on Lighthizer for weeks by insisting that he get a waiver for previous legal work for foreign interests, but most ultimately supported his nomination. The Senate approved the nomination, 82-14, on Thursday with only 10 Democrats, three Republicans and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont voting against him.
“It is clear that Mr. Lighthizer not only understands how the global trading system works, but also how it sometimes breaks down,” Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said before the vote. “He understands the U.S. role in the world, and he understands the challenges that trade cheats pose for American workers and businesses.”
Agricultural interests and their allies in the Senate were eager to get Lighthizer in place at USTR, believing that he would counter some of the more protectionist voices in the administration. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, head of the White House National Trade Council, are already on the job.
Lighthizer, who served as deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan, later headed up the international trade law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for over three decades, working on numerous antidumping cases involving steel and other products.
“In talking with farmers and ranchers across the country, I continually hear that trade tops the list of priorities, and Mr. Lighthizer has assured me he'll prioritize American agriculture,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Some 138 food and agriculture trade groups wrote senators urging Lighthizer’s confirmation, saying that delaying his arrival at USTR allowed foreign competitors to ramp up “efforts to supplant U.S. leadership and take away U.S. market share while nervous U.S. foreign customers seek out non-U.S. suppliers.”
But senators on both sides of the aisle used the Lighthizer nomination to air concerns about Trump’s trade policy, including his plan to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“So far, this administration’s trade strategy amounts to a muddle of 140-character tweets, mixed messages, and overhyped announcements that are backed by little substance,” said Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
“It has long been my view that we ought to grow and make things in this country, add value to them in this country, and ship them around the world, but accomplishing that depends on having a coherent strategy to promote our exports and fight back against trade cheats. That’s not what we have witnessed from this administration.”
Ahead of the vote, Republican Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona released a statement announcing that they would oppose Lighthizer’s nomination, both because of concerns about his views and White House trade policy.
“Beyond your vocal advocacy for protectionist shifts in our trade policies, the administration’s ongoing, incoherent, and inconsistent trade message has compounded our concern,” the senators said.
But Hatch criticized Democrats for delaying Lighthizer’s confirmation until the waiver they sought was included in the fiscal 2017 budget agreement enacted April 28.
“The USTR is Congress’ first and most important point of contact when it comes to trade policy. Therefore, in order for Congress to have an effective voice in shaping our nation’s trade agenda, we need to have a fully staffed and functional USTR office,” Hatch said.
Hatch also said he warned Lighthizer that the administration’s top concern in the NAFTA negotiations should be, “First, do no harm.”
At his confirmation hearing in March, Lighthizer said he would protect the needs of farmers and ranchers when the administration negotiates changes to NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. “I do believe it can be done. I’m not suggesting that it will be easy, but I do believe it can be done,” he said.
Agribusiness groups also welcomed Lighthizer’s confirmation.
He “will serve as our chief negotiator in all trade matters,” said Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “As Ambassador Lighthizer begins his new job, we urge him to focus his efforts on opening and expanding our access to other markets and preventing any action that may hinder our export growth.”
“We welcome Mr. Lighthizer’ s confirmation because of his grasp of global trade rules and understanding of the importance of balanced trade agreements to the U.S. dairy sector,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation. “We will continue to urge USTR to focus on protecting Mexico, our No. 1 market, insist that Canada revoke its detrimental new milk pricing policy, and pursue additional export opportunities around the world.”
Joel Newman, president and CEO of the American Feed Industry Association, noted that Ligthizer had used his confirmation hearing to recognize the importance of trade to the agriculture secretary.
David Schemm, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, urged Lighthizer to quickly name a chief agricultural negotiator.