President-elect Donald Trump will nominate lawyer Robert Lighthizer as U.S. trade representative, picking an experienced trade official who has questioned the conservative movement’s commitment to free trade. Experts say that veteran attorney Robert Lighthizer is uniquely qualified to transform the rhetoric into actual concrete policy. Where Robert Lighthizer differs from others is his firsthand experience with the ins and outs of U.S. trade law.
Mr. Lighthizer will be part of a revamped team whose mission includes confronting China and Mexico, which Mr. Trump contends have taken advantage of the U.S. under current trade agreements. Mr. Lighthizer had been the leading candidate for his post for some time.
He was among the people who helped run the transition for the trade representative office, which typically leads negotiations on international agreements that lower trade barriers, as well as bringing cases against other countries at the World Trade Organization.
Lighthizer, who has a reputation for being a tough negotiator and worked on high-level trade negotiations under Ronald Reagan, has the knowledge and the knowhow to deliver on Trump’s trade agenda.
Lighthizer was an early Trump supporter — always an asset for a candidate in the president-elect’s eyes. And unlike many of Trump’s picks for economic-related positions, Lighthizer has experience in government and expertise in his policy realm. In the 1980s, he had stints as a chief of staff on the Senate Finance Committee and as the deputy US trade representative under Reagan.
In the late 1980s he shifted into private legal practice, and has been working on trade-related issues for decades. Today he’s a partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he represents industries like steel that advocate to keep their sectors competitive in the American market.
Lighthizer has deep roots in the Republican establishment, having served as national treasurer for former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. Lighthizer currently works as a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where he specializes in international trade issues.
On an ideological level, Trump and Lighthizer are a natural match. Lighthizer is known as a colorful rhetorician and has long argued that using border taxes on imports to protect domestic industries from competition is something that is entirely compatible with conservatism. He’s penned op-eds praising Reagan for disregarding the “utopian dreams of free traders” with his “pragmatism” on trade. And in 2011, as Trump was considering a potential run for president, Lighthizer wrote an op-ed in the Washington Times defending Trump’s criticism of free trade and China.
“How does allowing China to constantly rig trade in its favor advance the core conservative goal of making markets more efficient?” Lighthizer wrote at the time.
Some liberal Democrats sector offered muted praise. Vocal trade critic Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said in a statement that Lighthizer’s views don’t align with many in the Republican Party, including some members of Trump’s proposed Cabinet “who represent the very perspective on trade that Lighthizer has long critiqued.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who has long spoken out against trade deals, also praised Lighthizer during a press conference on Capitol Hill, telling reporters the longtime trade lawyer is “obviously not in the same category” as other Cabinet picks who have supported the TPP and other deals
DeFazio said, “He’s certainly cut from very different cloth from any other special trade representative in my 30 years here in Washington. Every one of them has been someone who is an adamant so-called free trader. He’s more of a pragmatist. He’s not an ideologue, like they are.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Lighthizer will be involved in renegotiating existing trade deals or helping craft new ones. Given his history on trade, it’s clear that his instincts will not be to eliminate all trade barriers in trade deals, but instead to find ways to shield at least some domestic industries from job loss. And by all accounts it seems he will share Trump’s inclination to focus on China.
What’s unclear is how much power Lighthizer will actually have in executing trade policy. Trump has indicated that his close friend Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor Trump has nominated for commerce secretary, will be playing a much larger role in trade policy than commerce secretaries of the past.
Complicating things even further is the fact that Trump has created two entirely new positions in government designed to deal with trade. He’s named Jason Greenblatt, his longtime business lawyer, as his “special representative for international negotiations.” And Peter Navarro, an early Trump backer and economist best known for his manifesto “Death by China,” has been selected to oversee the new National Trade Council.
One thing Lighthizer has going for him in terms of influence over policy is his technical knowledge. How the division of labor will break down is uncertain. But all signs indicate that the Trump administration will be whipping up something different from what we’ve been seeing from both establishment Democrats and Republicans on trade for many years.
Robert Lighthizer is named U.S. Trade Representative, Wall Street Journal, Jan 3, 2017
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Alongside the heralded consumer benefits of expanded trade are substantial adjustment costs and distributional consequences. These impacts are most visible in the local labor markets in which the industries exposed to foreign competition are concentrated. Adjustment in local labor markets is remarkably slow, with wages and labor-force participation rates remaining depressed and unemployment rates remaining elevated for at least a full decade after the China trade shock commences. Exposed workers ex- perience greater job churning and reduced lifetime income. At the national level, employment has fallen in the US industries more exposed to import competition, as expected, but offsetting employment gains in other indus- tries have yet to materialize. Better understanding when and where trade is costly, and how and why it may be beneficial, is a key item on the research agenda for trade and labor economists.