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An introduction to the Office of the United States Trade Representative

Section 301. Digital Services Tax. The large aircraft dispute. USMCA (nee, NAFTA). Each of these major issues impacting American importers and exporters had at their center the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The USTR is one of the most important positions in government and Presidents look to the agency, along with State and Commerce, to make policy decisions and negotiate the US position on trade matters with foreign countries.


The Office of the USTR is located within the Executive Office of the President – an agency of the executive, rather than legislative or judicial branches. Trade was actually the responsibility of the State Department until the 1960’s. In 1962, Congressional legislation called on the President to create a position to manage trade and President Kennedy in 1963 named the first Office of the Special Trade Representative with offices in Washington and Geneva, Switzerland.


Through the years, the USTR took on additional responsibilities and adopted the name change in 1979 and by Executive Order 12188. It is a position requiring Senate confirmation and has traditionally not been a contentious or challenging position to report out of committee and win approval of the full Senate.


Prior to the current USTR, eighteen people have held the office since its inception. Their backgrounds usually involved trade, economics and oftentimes came from positions or committees on Capitol Hill. In the case of one former USTR, he actually went from the executive to the legislative branch – Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.


The USTR has been responsible for many of the most important issues facing American businesses in foreign trade through the past decades. In 1993, USTR Michael “Mickey” Kantor shepherded the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and was charged with promulgating the changes.


More recently, USTR Robert Lighthizer, who previously held the position of Deputy USTR under President Reagan in the 80’s, led the Trump administration’s trade policy and oversaw the Section 301 review of China and Section 232 review of steel and aluminum and recommended the imposition of duties in both cases after finding material injury to the American economy.


Earlier this year, President Biden nominated Katherine Tai to the position. She was unanimously confirmed as the nineteenth USTR, a position that holds the rank and title of Ambassador. She previously served as Chief Trade Counsel and Trade Subcommittee Staff Director for the House Ways and Means Committee in the United States Congress.

Under Ambassador Tai, the USTR has had an active first six months since President Biden took office. Most recently, Ambassador Tai and the staff of the USTR commemorated the one year enactment of USMCA, chosen not to take action on Vietnamese currency manipulation and joined several other Cabinet-level departments in a warning to companies about Xinjiang supply chains.