President-elect Donald Trump has taken another step toward filling his cabinet with nominees who are hostile to the government agencies they will head, this time by nominating avowed protectionist Robert Lighthizer as United States Trade Representative.
Officials from President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team have confirmed that Trump will nominate former Reagan administration official Robert Lighthizer as United States Trade Representative, in yet another signal that Trump intends to recklessly upend American trade policy.
Lighthizer was a deputy U.S. Trade Representative under Ronald Reagan, and in 2008, penned an op-ed entitled “Grand Old Protectionists,” in which he excoriated Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in particular and advanced a radically false interpretation of Reagan’s record:
President Reagan often broke with free-trade dogma. He arranged for voluntary restraint agreements to limit imports of automobiles and steel (an industry whose interests, by the way, I have represented). He provided temporary import relief for Harley-Davidson. He limited imports of sugar and textiles. His administration pushed for the “Plaza accord” of 1985, an agreement that made Japanese imports more expensive by raising the value of the yen.
As The Cato Institute notes, however, the reality of Reagan’s record was quite different from Lighthizer’s recollection:
It was the Reagan administration that launched the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986 that lowered global tariffs and created the World Trade Organization. It was his administration that won approval of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988. That agreement soon expanded to include Mexico in what became the North American Free Trade Agreement, realizing a vision that Reagan first articulated in the 1980 campaign. It was Reagan who vetoed protectionist textile quota bills in 1985 and 1988.
During Reagan’s eight years in office, Americans eagerly expanded their engagement in the global economy. In 1980, the year before Reagan became president, Americans spent a total of $334 billion on imported goods and services and payments on foreign investment in the United States. By 1988, his last year in office, American spending in the global economy had nearly doubled, to $663 billion. If Reagan was a “protectionist,” it had no discernable effect on the ability of Americans to spend freely in the global marketplace. Fittingly, one of the major federal buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue is named the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
Like most post-war presidents, Reagan championed free trade while selectively deviating from it. Critics of trade note correctly that Reagan negotiated “voluntary” import quotas for steel and Japanese cars and imposed Section 201 tariffs on imported motorcycles to protect Harley-Davidson. All true. But those were the exceptions and not the rule. They were tactical retreats designed to defuse rising protectionists pressures in Congress.
Lighthizer’s affinity for tariffs matches that of the head of Trump’s newly-created White House National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, and alongside Trump, they could potentially start a trade war (or wars) which could harm American consumers and cost jobs for American companies that rely on exports.
Meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated no intention to make good on his promise to get tough with American companies, instead bribing Carrier with taxpayer money while still losing 1,300 jobs to Mexico, and taking credit for jobs that were arranged before he was elected.
Lighthizer’s appointment represents the worst of both worlds: a policy agenda that will harm the U.S. globally, and do little to help domestically, where automation continues to be the driver of manufacturing job losses.
But doing little good and a lot of harm is par for the course with Team Trump.