At a late-morning news conference Friday, the president asked for congressional authority to begin reorganizing and possibly merge several commerce and trade-related agencies.
The move comes amid both intense debate over how to curb government spending and efforts to boost U.S. exports to create jobs. The USTR was the lead agency last year in striking free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama — the president’s most aggressive trade initiative to date.
The USTR was set up under the Kennedy administration as the focal point for trade negotiations with other countries. The current head of the office, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, is a Cabinet-level appointee with ambassadorial rank — important status that former trade officials say should be maintained.
An Obama administration official said that under the president’s plan, the USTR would not lose its Cabinet-level rank, even as it shifted to the Commerce Department.
Still, lawmakers and others were concerned about the impact on an agency that congressional leaders praised as “nimble, lean and effective.”
“Taking USTR, one of the most efficient agencies that is a model of how government can and should work, and making it just another corner of a new bureaucratic behemoth would hurt American exports and hinder American job creation,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich) said in a joint statement.
Others noted that the country’s lead trade negotiator needs White House authority.
“When you have international talks, rank matters,” said Philip Levy, a Columbia University professor who was a senior trade economist in the George w. Bush administration.
“Any changes must protect the nimbleness of our trade negotiators to press forward with a strong pro-trade agenda,” said Daniel A. Varroney, acting president and chief executive of TechAmerica, a trade group. “Any changes that are made to the USTR must not dilute its mission or hamper our ability to respond in real time.”
He said trade is particularly important to the technology industry, which produces $228 billion in exports from U.S. tech companies.
The trade representative’s office also helps coordinate trade policy among agencies, said Susan Schwab, who held the top USTR job from 2006 to 2009. Trade policy, she said, often ignites disputes among agencies, putting foreign policy or strategic goals in potential conflict with commercial interests.
Resolving such disputes, she said, needs a White House-level arbiter.