Five ways Trump can make US trade system great — and transparent — again
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE was elected by a wave of populist sentiment with promises to aggressively renegotiate deals in place, litigate grievances and fundamentally change the way the United States looks at trade policy. While the process for progress on the trade agenda is uncertain, it is clear that the incoming Trump administration is preparing for major changes.

Among these changes should be making trade policy more transparent and inclusive for the people who elected Trump.


Trump this week announced Robert Lighthizer as his choice for United States Trade Representative (USTR). Ambassador Lighthizer joins a crowded bench of advisors interested in updating the trade agenda, including Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Jason Greenblatt as “special representative for international negotiations and Peter Navarro as head of the newly created National Trade Council in the White House.

These gentlemen inherit a policymaking apparatus that is more transparent than other countries, but inadequate for an engaged citizenry focused on the effects of trade on their jobs, families and communities. USTR publishes extracted summaries of negotiating positions, seeks public input through the Federal Register Notice and receives advice from approximately 700 private sector advisors.

This system was pioneering when it was created in 1974. After 43 years it’s time for an update.

Today, the work of USTR is viewed with suspicion and seen as giving more power to the already powerful. Private sector advisors almost exclusively represent large multinational corporations. Advisory committee meetings are conducted in secret, the contents of which are never disclosed.

The process is cumbersome, laborious and has a tendency to discourage participation. As a result, U.S. negotiators miss out on good advice from the public they represent. Secrecy also has a way of breeding misinformation and conspiracy theories that turn public opinion against trade.

Here are five recommendations to modernize trade policy:

  1. Pick up a ball dropped by the Obama Administration[]and install a Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee to represent the interests of the people, not just the corporations. More public participation in the process will provide early guidance to negotiators resulting in better and more popular agreements.

  2. As President-elect Trump recognizes the utility of term limits for Congress[], so too should there should be term limits for trade advisors. Many have been in place for decades. While there is some benefit to institutional knowledge, policymakers would benefit more from fresh ideas and input from a broader representation of the diverse US economy.

  3. Advisors should be allowed to have plus-one staff. Many senior executives and otherwise qualified-but-busy people are not interested in advising USTR because of the time commitment involved in getting up to speed and staying on top of often complex cross-border issues. Instead, committees are dominated by professional lobbyists. Allowing advisors to join committees with a staffer would attract more senior people with deeper business expertise to serve.  

  4. Advisors should be allowed to review classified documents and participate in meetings remotely. Forcing individuals to be physically present in Washington, DC to review text or attend meetings is a cumbersome constraint that again rewards the lobbying class in DC. Communications and texts can be delivered through encrypted channels. For those who leak documents or abuse these systems, they should be prosecuted in accordance with their Non Disclosure Agreements.

  5. Finally, USTR should declassify transcripts of advisory committee meetings after some period of time. These meetings are currently classified and thus not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Information regarding business sensitive or confidential information could be redacted, but providing historical transcripts will attract more public interest in the advisory system, educate future advisors about the process and help chill conspiracy theories.   

Trade agreements should be popular. They are designed to bring rules to an otherwise lawless world, create opportunities for American businesses and entrepreneurs, improve labor and environmental standards and protect U.S. innovation. Trade agreements create economic stability and provide security between nations.

Modernizing negotiations will improve public understanding of these agreements, counter misinformation and support President-elect Trump’s efforts to create fair and competitive markets for American workers by making trade popular again.

John Stubbs is a former Senior Advisor to USTR in the George W. Bush Administration and is currently an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University

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