Beyond pandemic response, the path forward for U.S. international economic policy should begin with an effort to shore up its democratic institutional foundations. The Trade Act of 1974 mandates that the president “shall seek … and take into account” advice from the private sector on trade negotiating objectives, the operation of trade agreements, and other international economic policy issues. The same law created the trade advisory committee system—with sectoral and functional committees focusing on specific industries, agriculture, labor, and the environment—and it plays an indispensable role in keeping U.S. trade policy tethered to the expertise and imperatives of individuals and enterprises directly engaged in international trade.
However, the trade advisory committee system has atrophied in recent years, and key initiatives have proceeded without heeding the guidance of cleared advisors or, at times, leaving them in the dark. Reinvigorating this system with new appointments and a more serious commitment to heeding the legal requirement to take the advice of committee members into account is indispensable to a democratic, pro-growth trade policy.
In addition, the Biden administration must revive the interagency process for trade policymaking. The Departments of State, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, and others each bring unique perspective to international economic policy, and in many regards they have statutory prerogatives that have received insufficient consideration in recent years. For example, the State Department is co-leader on U.S. international investment policy alongside USTR, but the latter has left the former to one side in recent years on these issues. Restoring this robust and democratic process will help ensure trade policy advances the national interest broadly.
Similarly, the concerns and input of the congressional committees of jurisdiction on trade have at times been ignored, or key initiatives have advanced while leaving congressional trade leaders insufficiently briefed and engaged. Executive engagement on trade cannot be limited to ad hoc engagement with select groups of members of Congress from a single party.