President Obama has proposed a new cabinet agency to subsume the Commerce Department, the US Trade Representative and the Small business Administration. He has justified this new department as creating greater efficiencies, enhancing business results, and saving taxpayer money. Although the President has outlined his strategy, he has not made an effective case to Congress for this change in structure. His ideas are especially worrisome regarding trade. Congress created the USTR to take control over trade negotiations out of the Department of State, which was seen as favoring international interests over domestic needs.
Although Congress and the executive share responsibility for trade policymaking, Congress sets the direction for trade policy and exerts oversight on how the executive branch implements and enforces trade laws. Congress holds the Executive on a tight leash, because it forces the President to seek Congressional approval to negotiate trade agreements (trade promotion authority). Congress needs a consistent, effective staff to advise members as they weigh trade policy. Why not embrace the idea of Senator Max Baucus who has long called for a Congressional Trade Office, to help members address the increasingly broad array of issues, from internet freedom to food safety, that are currently trade issues? This office would provide Congress with independent, nonpartisan and neutral trade expertise, enable more members of Congress to meet their trade responsibilities, and play an important role in monitoring trade negotiations and trade enforcement.
Members of Congress are more likely to embrace a structural change in the executive branch if they have the staff and expertise to monitor what the Executive is doing.
Susan Ariel Aaronson, Associate Research Professor, IIEP and Visiting Fellow, Quality of Governance Institute, Gothenberg, Sweden. She teaches courses in trade issues and in corruption/good governance. She is interested in the relationship between respecting human rights and economic growth.