Senate Confirms, 98-0, Katherine Tai as USTR

Posted on 03/17/2021 12:09 PM

Trade policy decisions ahead re: China, EU, Pacific trade deal, WTO



The usually hyper-partisan Senate reversed course today and approved, 98-0, Katherine Tai as the new U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).


     Tai, 46, is the first woman of color to serve as the top U.S. trade negotiator — her parents immigrated from Taiwan. She is the only Asian American woman to be appointed to a Cabinet-level position under Biden. Tai, who was born in Connecticut, speaks fluent Mandarin. She has degrees from Harvard Law School and Yale University.


     Among her first tasks will be advising the president on what to do about existing tariffs on most imported Chinese products, presiding over enforcement of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and seeking a negotiated end to a long-running commercial dispute with the European Union. Tai will be a key player in crafting the “worker-centered” trade policy that President Biden has promised and making sure his efforts to promote domestic manufacturing comply with U.S. trade commitments.


     Regarding China, Tai’s confirmation comes just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan meet Thursday in Alaska with Chinese officials.


     Regarding U.S./EU trade issues, earlier this month, Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed to a four-month suspension of tariffs on a variety of products while they redouble efforts to reach a negotiated settlement. During her confirmation hearings, Tai pledged to make a settlement with the EU an early priority.


     Background: Besides her Capitol Hill tenure in the House, she boasts several years at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), directing the enforcement of trade deals with China. Tai won bipartisan praise for her role in negotiating changes to what eventually became the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement. Tai helped design a creative approach to enforcing workers’ rights in Mexico, which involved the right to challenge the operations of individual Mexican factories. “Katherine understood clearly that enforcement could get Democrats on board,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Tai’s boss at the time. At the end of those talks, Neal said he told her: “You should get a Nobel Prize in economics.”


     In written answers to lawmakers’ questions following her confirmation hearing, Tai said she would “seek to determine the impact of trade policies on workers’ wages and economic security and take that impact into account as we develop new policy.” She also echoed Trump administration complaints about the WTO, saying “reforms are needed” to discourage its appellate panel from infringing on U.S. rights. “The Appellate Body has overstepped its authority and erred in interpreting WTO agreements in a number of cases, to the detriment of the United States and other WTO members. In addition, the Appellate Body has failed to follow existing rules created to ensure that disputes are resolved in a timely manner,” Tai wrote.


     Tai did not signal specifics on two major issues: the fate of the existing tariffs on most imported Chinese goods and prospects for the U.S. to rejoin a Pacific trade deal that Trump quit his third day as president. “Much has changed in the world since the original [Trans-Pacific Partnership/TPP] was signed in 2016,” Tai wrote, adding only that she would consult with lawmakers on the road ahead.



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