Donald Trump wants Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor tapped for Commerce secretary, to oversee his trade policy, in a controversial move that could spark a battle between the incoming administration and Congress.
Mr Trump has agreed to give Mr Ross, a close friend, responsibility for handling one of his signature campaign issues, the Financial Times has learnt. The move, which would cut the influence of the US trade representative, would boost the role of Commerce secretary, traditionally a weak cabinet position. But it could face resistance in Congress where there has been opposition to similar ideas in the past.
“Secretary Ross will be our administration’s leader on setting many of our trade priorities,” Jason Miller, the Trump transition team spokesman, confirmed when asked by the FT about the move.
Mr Ross was one of the main architects of Mr Trump’s “America First” trade policy. In interviews since the election, he has continued to be the most vocal advocate for a wholesale rethinking of US trade policy. His role is set to be formalised once the new administration starts in January, according to the Trump transition team.
Mr Trump will still appoint a USTR head. But the president-elect has backed away from his campaign vow to bring all of the government officials involved in trade policy into an “American Desk” at the commerce department. One person familiar with the shift said Mr Ross would determine trade priorities and that the USTR would be required to implement them.
Mr Miller said the transition team was “still determining the exact lines of responsibility between Commerce and USTR”. But he said that 79-year-old Mr Ross would play a much larger role on trade policy than previous commerce secretaries because of his relationship with Mr Trump and his role shaping the president-elect’s trade message. He declined to comment on whether the Trump team had discussed the move with Congress.
Mr Ross has been an outspoken critic of past trade agreements and has argued that the US could better use its leverage as a major consumer market to force countries to buy more US goods to help narrow the trade deficit.
“Free trade doesn’t mean dumb trade,” he told the FT in a recent interview. “We should treat ourselves as the world’s biggest customer and treat nations that are selling to us as suppliers to us.”
At a campaign rally in October, Mr Trump pledged a “major reorganisation of our bureaucracy” to make Washington’s approach to trade more efficient.
Congress has for decades aggressively guarded its constitutionally mandated oversight of international trade. Sandy Levin, the senior Democrat on the House ways and means committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, said a reorganisation would be an unneeded distraction for the incoming administration.
“The main problem is not the organisational structure, it is the structure of policy,” said Mr Levin. “Just throwing out this idea and that idea won’t work. I’m not a big fan of thinking you can just restructure.”
By handing Mr Ross oversight over trade while maintaining the administrative divisions, Mr Trump may still provoke a fight with the House and Senate committees that have responsibility for trade in Congress. The two key committees — the House ways and means committee and the Senate finance committee — also have jurisdiction over tax reform, which is another priority for the Trump administration.
Free trade doesn’t mean dumb trade. We should treat ourselves as the world’s biggest customer and treat nations that are selling to us as suppliers to us
Gary Hufbauer, an expert on US trade policy, said any effort by the Trump administration to have Mr Ross lead on trade would mark a significant departure and face opposition. “Even doing it informally will create some friction with the congressional branch,” he said.
The US Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate trade. The legislature regularly delegates that authority to presidents, doing so most recently in June 2015. But it also has rejected repeated attempts by presidents to fold the office of the USTR into the commerce department or otherwise reorganise the bureaucratic structures.
Since the position was first created in 1962, the USTR has been a part of the president’s executive office, in a move that gives it additional authority internationally. It has a reputation for being a lean operation, in stark contrast to the sprawling commerce department, which has some 47,000 employees around the world.
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