Lawmakers unload trade frustrations on Lighthizer

Jun 7, 2018 Issues: Trade

House Ways and Means members on Thursday expressed frustration with President Donald Trump's trade policies in a face-to-face meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that left some of the lawmakers doubting whether the administration has a strategy to achieve its objectives.

"My message remains the same: Our trade practices need to hit the right target, which is China and its unfair trade practices, not our allies, and certainly not Americans," House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said in a statement after the meeting. "But the administration’s recent actions don’t achieve that goal."

The senior lawmaker was referring to Trump's recent decision to no longer exempt Canada, Mexico and the European Union from steel and aluminum tariffs imposed in the name of national security. That move has triggered all three trading partners to move forward with retaliation against the U.S., with farmers particularly in the crosshairs.

Brady urged Trump to reverse that decision and also to "fix the broken product exclusion process," which is intended to allow U.S. manufacturers to get exemptions from the new steel and aluminum duties on a product-by-product basis.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), who chairs the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, said he also conveyed his concern over Trump's decision to impose the new tariffs on close U.S. allies. "This hurts American manufacturers, consumers and workers by increasing costs, and it exposes our exporters to retaliation from our trading partners," Reichert said.

The two Republicans also told Lighthizer they were worried about the continued business uncertainty caused by the renegotiation of NAFTA, which started nearly 10 months ago and still appears to be far from conclusion because of tough demands the Trump administration has made in the talks.

Brady said he urged the administration to push for a "strong and modern NAFTA with binding dispute settlement, including [investor-state dispute settlement], and without the uncertainty created by an automatic sunset." Those are all areas where the administration's current positions clash with the views of Republican leaders in Congress.

Democrats said it is hard to grasp the goal of the administration's frenetic approach to trade policy.

“We left there I think feeling that there’s just no clear strategy," Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said. "What’s the end game? That was the first question that was asked.”

“You just get the sense that this is shifting day to day, almost minute to minute," said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.). "Most members were just trying to convey to him that we get a sense of chaos. Most of us were surprised with last week's announcement moving forward on the tariffs — no report to Congress, no basis for the underlying justification for doing it.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Lighthizer gave no timeline for when the administration aims to conclude the NAFTA talks.

“I think he sensed the frustration on both sides. I still think he is a good negotiator if he is allowed to do his job. We have major problems now because we are distancing ourselves from our allies for no reason whatsoever," Pascrell said.

Trump faces another decision next week on whether to make good on a threat to impose tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods to pressure Beijing to change unfair trade practices.

Pascrell said he believed the administration still plans to do that, although Lighthizer didn't explicitly say.

“This is an appearance of clarity cloaked by total chaos," Pascrell said.

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POLITICO: Lawmakers unload trade frustrations on Lighthizer