Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., co-sponsored legislation to install an office of inspector general at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., co-sponsored legislation to install an office of inspector general at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP

Bipartisan Group of Senators Push for Trade Office IG

Nearly every other Cabinet-level agency has an inspector general.

Senators from both parties introduced a bill on Thursday that would establish an inspector general position for the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, senior members of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced the 2021 USTR Inspector General Act to give USTR––which deals with billions of dollars in trade and makes critical decisions that impact American workers–– the same level of oversight that other agencies have. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the committee, and a bipartisan group of senators co-sponsored it. 

“The current lack of oversight over U.S. trade policy is problematic,” said Menendez in a statement. “The U.S. Trade Representative is responsible for developing and coordinating the implementation of U.S. international trade policy with far-reaching consequences for American workers, businesses and civil society and as such, Americans deserve honest and transparent trade policy that prioritizes the economic interests of the country and cracks down on waste, fraud, and abuse.”

The IG would be established under the 1978 Inspector General Act and the bill would require the president to appoint a nominee for the position no later than 120 days after its enactment. 

The senators cited reporting from news outlets last year that they argue shows the need for a watchdog at USTR.

A ProPublica report from January 2020 showed how the agency’s “opaque” China tariff exclusion process, initiated under the Trump administration, “raised concerns over its lack of transparency, inconsistent decision-making, and political favoritism.” 

The senators also referenced a Bloomberg report from June 2020 about how two USTR employees, both key negotiators of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, contacted companies in the auto industry offering their services once they left government. “It is not uncommon for federal regulatory officials to cash in on their expertise after leaving the government by advising clients about the agencies where they once worked,” said the report. “But offering services as part of a private venture while on the government payroll would go a step further, according to ethics experts.” 

At the time, the USTR ethics office didn’t respond to Bloomberg’s questions about whether or not the men asked for permission to do the outreach or had clearance to do so. 

“Inspectors general play an important role in keeping government agencies accountable and ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately,” said Cornyn. “This legislation would put in place an inspector general to provide oversight over international trade policy, which increasingly affects the everyday lives of Texas workers and businesses.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced similar versions of the bill last August, bills that also would have directed the IG to do an audit of the China tariff exclusion process following increased tariffs pursuant to section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. 

At the time of introduction in August 2020, the USTR was the only cabinet-level agency without an inspector general. However, soon after taking office President Biden elevated the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to Cabinet-level positions. The former two are housed within the White House.

“USTR plays a unique role among the agencies within [Executive of the President] in that Congress has delegated significant authority to the USTR to develop and implement trade policy,” a spokesperson for Menedez told Government Executive on Friday. “Other entities within [the Executive Office of the President, such as the National Security Council] play more of an advisory role to the president without the same delegated authority from Congress.” 

 

Tim Stretton, a policy analyst for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, outlined some of the potential complications of creating the new IG position. 

“While USTR is a cabinet level agency it is housed within the [Executive Office of the President.] Given the advisor role USTR plays to the president and that it's in the EOP there could be some constitutional issues in creating an IG for this office,” he said. “While we are supportive of creating more oversight and transparency of this office, creating the IG may not be the best option.” 

Other options for lawmakers to consider are “moving several of USTR's functions out of the EOP and into the Commerce department, or simply requiring better transparency practices through legislation of the USTR as it currently exists,” he said. 

There are currently 15 IG vacancies (some dating back to the Obama administration), 14 of which require a presidential nomination. 

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