President Donald Trump’s nominee for the next U.S. Trade Representative ambassador Robert Lighthizer sat before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon and promised he would be a champion for agriculture and help increase market access for U.S. agricultural products.
In response to questioning from Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), who serves on the Senate Finance Committee as well as chairman of the agriculture committee, Lighthizer said he’s had a long history in agriculture that dates back to 1983, when he negotiated the grain agreement with Russia during the Reagan Administration to resume sales that had been halted during President Jimmy Carter’s term.
He said a memorable comment during his previous tenure -- a statement that stuck with him -- was advice given to him then: “As you go through doing your job, remember, you don’t eat steel,” Lighthizer recalled. He added that he plans to prioritize agriculture both in terms of maintaining current markets as well as getting additional market access.
Lighthizer acknowledged that agriculture clearly would have been a beneficiary of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the agreement, countries involved in those TPP negotiations will be targets for bilateral agreements. “Japan is a primary target for a place where increased access for agriculture is important,” he told the senators.
“It is hard for me to understand why we tolerate so many barriers when American is the number-one producer,” Lighthizer said of agriculture. “If you believe in trade and market efficiency, we have to believe agriculture is more of a positive than it is. Opening up more markets for agricultural sales is a very high priority for us.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) shared what’s at stake in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also asked if the Trump Administration plans to approach NAFTA as two bilateral agreements or as a trilateral deal.
Lighthizer noted that the decision has not been made on whether to update NAFTA as a bilateral or trilateral agreement. He did note that former USTR Michael Froman did a “remarkable job in variety of areas” within TPP negotiations that can help jump-start the NAFTA renegotiation.
The nominee said he hopes and believes NAFTA can be renegotiated in a way that helps all countries and doesn’t put agriculture in a precarious position. He said the general consensus is that NAFTA is outdated, but during the course of negotiations, it will be important to not affect those who have been winners under NAFTA, as agriculture has been.
"Agriculture has done pretty well," Lighthizer said of NAFTA, and it's important to "be careful to not lose what we gained." He noted that the U.S. is an important market to Mexico, so there's leverage to do it properly and rationally to improve NAFTA while not hurt agriculture -- but he knows it won't be easy.
The U.S. and Mexico "both need each other a lot economically. I think that's something that helps both of us and doesn't risk damage to our agricultural sector," he told the senators.
Roberts also stated in meeting with the White House Trade Council earlier this year, they outlined four goals and 13 policy objectives. That list of key elements of a model trade agreement has now grown to 24 and includes non-tariff barriers, phytosanitary standards, processed foods and geographical indications to restrict trade.
He warned specifically against one of the elements on the list – country-of-origin labeling (COOL) – which he reiterated has already been a tough issue handled by Congress. “We’ve been down this road and fixed the issue of COOL in 2015 and narrowly escaped $4 billion in retaliatory tariffs,” Roberts said. (To watch the full exchange between Roberts and Lighthizer, click here.)
In his opening statement, chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said the President is currently considering some of the most significant trade policy decisions in decades, including whether and how to upgrade the NAFTA, whether and how to launch additional trade negotiations with parties to the former TPP and whether and how to continue negotiations for a Trade in Services Agreement, an Environmental Goods Agreement and an agreement with the European Union.
Hatch made his frustration known that Senate Democrats are looking to hold up the nomination of Lighthizer. “At a time when Congress is demanding greater input into trade policy-making and stronger enforcement, our principal liaison in the Administration is being blocked from even assuming the office,” he said.