Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., Tuesday said he is concerned about the possible "politicizing" of the U.S. trade representative's office, which he said has replaced some longtime professional staff members with political appointees whom he declined to name publicly.
"I am concerned about this drift that has occurred, more dramatically recently," Thomas said during an organizational session of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee.
Expressing concern about "the politicizing of USTR," Thomas said he is worried about the staff changes "to the degree that professionalism is replaced with politicism and political agendas."
Trade Subcommittee ranking member Robert Matsui, D-Calif., attending his first meeting as the panel's top Democrat, quickly pointed out to Thomas that some of the unspecified personnel changes that have occurred at USTR took place "due to demands of members of Congress." He said members from both houses "have been significantly responsible" for some of the shifts.
A subcommittee aide said after the meeting that the USTR's office had "shifted the agricultural section ... under pressure from [North Dakota Democratic Sens. Byron] Dorgan and [Kent] Conrad." The two Democrats have pushed in recent years for tougher actions against U.S. trading partners accused of various trade violations involving wheat or other products.
The subcommittee aide expressed concern that the view of the new agricultural staffers at USTR "will be too narrow" on agricultural trade issues and said there is "a general concern that [USTR has] become more a haven for political appointees" than for the kinds of professional staff it has had in the past.
Ways and Means ranking member Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who was ranking member on the Trade panel in the last Congress, said Thomas's claim that the new staffers at USTR had a political agenda is "a pretty serious thing" and expressed concern that Thomas had not backed up his claims.
Asked to name those who he believed to be political appointees with political agendas, Thomas declined to do so in public.
Asked about Thomas's concerns after the session, Rangel said, "I don't even know what he's talking about."
Trade Subcommittee Chairman Philip Crane, R-Ill., said afterward that "the feeling [is] that they are not professional staffers, that they are political appointees."
Efforts by CongressDaily to contact USTR officials for comment Tuesday evening were unsuccessful.