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USTR veteran Tai confirmed by Senate to lead trade agency

New USTR has extensive experience on Chinese trade issues

Katherine Tai told the Senate Finance Committee she would shape trade policies to benefit U.S. workers.
Katherine Tai told the Senate Finance Committee she would shape trade policies to benefit U.S. workers. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Senate voted 98-0 Wednesday to confirm Katherine Tai to direct the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative as the Biden administration fleshes out its trade priorities and practices.

Tai, the chief trade lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee, becomes the first Asian American to lead the agency with her confirmation. She is the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan and will return to an agency where she worked for seven years in the general counsel’s office.

Tai was chief counsel for China trade enforcement, a role that included responsibility for developing cases and representing the U.S. before the World Trade Organization in disputes with China. She held that position from 2011 until 2014, when she joined the House committee as trade counsel.

She has a reputation as a skilled and tough negotiator for her work at USTR and for her role in brokering strong labor and environmental enforcement procedures to the implementing legislation for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade on behalf of congressional Democrats. The USMCA replaced the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Tai, 47, will start her new post with bipartisan backing and support from agriculture, business and union groups that often play major roles in trade issues.   

In floor remarks Tuesday, Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Tai had the right background and working knowledge of Congress to be the top U.S. trade official.

“She led crackdowns against China’s trade cheating and job rip-offs. As the top trade staffer on the Ways and Means Committee, she was at the forefront of the effort to improve the new NAFTA, when the Trump administration handed the Congress a deal that wasn’t strong enough for America’s workers,” Wyden said. “She’s already got a long track record of achieving wins for America’s workers, businesses, farmers and ranchers.” 

At her Feb. 25 confirmation hearing, Tai told the Senate Finance Committee she will hold trading partners to their obligations, shape trade policies to benefit U.S. workers and strive for balance in dealing with geopolitical rival China.

While Tai waited for Senate confirmation, the Biden administration reached agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union for all parties to suspend for four months retaliatory tariffs on goods as part of the 15-year-old Boeing Co.-Airbus subsidy dispute at the WTO.

There are high hopes that Tai can resolve the case with the European Union and the United Kingdom.

In a written response to questions that Finance Committee members asked after her hearing, Tai said she would make it a priority to resolve “this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field and takes into account all affected stakeholders.”

The administration has not said what it will do with Section 301 tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on imported Chinese goods valued at more than $300 billion. China retaliated with duties on more than $100 billion of U.S. goods.

Tai’s predecessor, Robert Lighthizer, used the tariffs under enforcement provisions of a 1974 trade law to strike a mini-deal with Beijing that called for China to stop practices like requiring U.S. businesses to enter joint ventures with Chinese partners and share technology with them.

Beijing also agreed to make $200 billion in purchases of additional agriculture, energy, manufactured goods and services through 2021.

The phase one deal stopped an escalation in tariffs between the two countries. However, the tariffs placed on goods by each country remain in place.

Tai told the committee she would review complaints about the exclusion process the Trump administration put in place for companies affected by the Section 301 tariffs. She said the process needs more transparency, predictability and due process. 

In an annual mandated report to Congress, the Biden administration said enforcement of trade agreements and obligations by allies and trading partners was a priority.

In the March 1 report, the administration said the U.S. will partner with allies to press Beijing to end unfair trade practices and to address China’s overproduction that has led to global distortions in steel, aluminum, fiber optics, solar and other industries. As the new trade representative, Tai will be a key official responsible for moving that agenda ahead.

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