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Robert Lighthizer, Trade Expert and Reagan Stalwart, Picked as U.S. Trade Representative

by Countable | 5.11.17

President Donald Trump has selected Robert Lighthizer, a trade-litigation specialist who has been critical of China’s business practices, to lead the Office of the United States Trade Representative. "He has extensive experience striking agreements that protect some of the most important sectors of our economy and has repeatedly fought in the private sector to prevent bad deals from hurting Americans," Trump said in a statement. “He will do an amazing job helping turn around the failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity.”

Who is Robert Lighthizer?

Lighthizer, 69, was born in Ashtabula, OH, a small town on the shores of Lake Erie. He received an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University in 1969 and a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1973. Upon leaving law school, he then joined the prominent D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling and went on to chair the national Bar Association’s Federal Practice Committee between 1975 and 1978.

His initial brush with politics came in 1978, when then-Sen. Bob Dole hired him as his staff director. Lighthizer would later assist Dole as national treasurer of the senator’s 1996 presidential campaign. As the deputy trade representative under President Ronald Reagan, Lighthizer helped stem the tide of Japanese imports flooding the U.S. in the 1980s and established a reputation as an up-and-coming negotiator with a combination of wit and gravitas that defied his boyish exterior. He is currently a partner, specializing in international trade issues, with the New York law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom.

Lighthizer is a lifelong exercise buff who was considered something of a daredevil in his youth. A married father of two sons, James and Robert Jr., he calls Rockville, MD home.

What’s the outlook for his confirmation?

Good, but it could be a rough ride. On the campaign trail, Trump emphasized that, under his leadership, the U.S. would make "better deals," suggesting that he would impose stiff tariffs on imports and vowing to remake the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has already made good on his promise to pull the U.S. out of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership with a dozen countries from the Asia-Pacific region, and Lighthizer would be his point man on the renegotiation of existing trade agreements and the pursuit of new ones.

To that end, pro-trade Republicans have looked askance at this nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), for example, may recall the op-ed Lighthizer wrote for The New York Times after McCain sewed up the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. In it, Lighthizer questioned McCain’s conservative bona fides and criticized what he called the senator’s "unbridled free-trade policies."

On the other hand, some Democrats, including Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Ways and Means, wax enthusiastic about Lighthizer’s free-trade leanings, with 85-year-old Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), a House member since 1983, stressing that "Bob Lighthizer understands the harmful impact of unfairly traded imports on U.S. workers and businesses."

Nonetheless, his nomination may hit a legal snag. In 1985, Lighthizer represented Brazil in a trade dispute with the U.S. over ethanol. Ten years later, Congress banned anyone who had ever represented a foreign government in a disagreement over commerce from representing the U.S. as its top trade official. It’s up to the Senate Finance Committee, which is vetting Lighthizer, to examine the issue in detail. If the panel determines that his candidacy can proceed, Lighthizer is expected to follow a relatively smooth path toward confirmation.

What does the U.S. Trade Representative do?

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) recommends trade policy to the president, conducts trade negotiations and coordinates trade policy within the government. The post is Cabinet level but, as part of the Executive Office of the President, is not technically considered part of the Cabinet.

The trade representative and his deputy hold the title of ambassador, and the USTR participates in the World Trade Organization, with a senior staff member tabbed to serve as the U.S. ambassador to that body. The office employs 200 people and had a budget of $52.6 million in Fiscal Year 2014.

The USTR is also responsible for the annual preparation of several key trade reports, including the National Trade Estimate Report, which looks at significant foreign barriers to U.S. exports, and the Special 301 Report, which identifies trade barriers to U.S. companies and products involving intellectual-property laws and includes the Notorious Markets list of virtual and physical markets suspected of harboring large-scale intellectual-property infringement.

-- Erin Wright

(Photo Credit: Office of the President-elect / Creative Commons)


Written by Countable

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