Washington Insider -- Wednesday

FTC Role Expanded, Includes Right-to-Repair Oversight

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

USTR Mum on US-UK Trade Deal Prospects

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)Katherine Tai met UK Secretary of State for International Trade Elizabeth Truss, a sort of follow up to a session the two had in June.

A readout of the session from USTR noted the two celebrated the Large Civil Aircraft framework reached between the U.S. and UK that "strengthens the cooperative relationship between the two countries in the aerospace sector."

As with other sessions that Tai has had with world trade officials, it noted the two agreed to work together "to promote fair competition, enhance the international trade system, and address forced labor issues." The latter is viewed as clearly a reference to the actions of China.

As for a U.S.-UK trade deal, the readout simply said the two "committed to continue strengthening the trade and economic partnership between the United States and United Kingdom."

Senate Finance Committee Clears to Trade Nominees

The Senate Finance Committee voted Tuesday to approve the nominations of two for trade posts at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, forwarding those nominations to the full Senate.

The panel failed to have a quorum present initially, so the votes were held later on the sidelines of the Senate. The panel approved 27-1 the nomination of Sarah Bianchi to be deputy U.S. trade representative for Asia, Africa, investment, services, textiles, and industrial competitiveness.

The panel also cleared 25-3 Jayme Ray White to be a deputy U.S. trade representative for the Western Hemisphere, Europe, the Middle East, labor, and environment.

White and Bianchi told lawmakers in the confirmation hearings that the lapse in Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) should not keep the Biden administration from pursuing new trade agreements provided those deals were constructed to be able to win bipartisan backing in Congress.

But the two did not signal the administration was ready to pursue any new trade deals at this point.

Washington Insider FTC About to Become Busier

The broad executive order issued by President Joe Biden on competitiveness, "Promoting Competition in the U.S. Economy," directs several government agencies to take a series of actions on the regulatory front that would address what the administration says is a lack of competitiveness in several areas of the U.S. economy. One of the agencies that will have quite a role in the actions is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which in reality is an independent government agency that dates back to 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the agency. The FTC opened its doors March 16, 1915, given a mission to "protect consumers and promote competition." But the agency did have a predecessor -- the Bureau of Corporations. The Commission is headed by five Commissioners, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, each serving a seven-year term. No more than three Commissioners can be of the same political party. The President chooses one Commissioner to act as Chair. So this agency, while a federal government agency, does have some autonomy in that the terms of commissioners can overlap from administration to administration. But the president gets to choose who leads the agency. That feeds into the current executive order in that the FTC has several mentions in that order. For example, they are given an important mention when it comes to cooperation between agencies on cases of overlapping jurisdiction when it comes to "major transactions." When those cases of overlap happen, the agencies involved are to give "significant consideration" to the views of the Attorney General and the FTC Chair. In fact, many of the actions outlined in the executive order call on the Attorney General and FTC Chair to take several actions in areas relative to mergers, wages collusion, and they are the lead on addressing issues like no-compete clauses, which the executive order calls on to be addressed in the event they "unfairly limit worker mobility." The FTC has a key role in the effort to improve farmers' and smaller food processors' access to retail markets. They are to work with USDA to come up with a report within 300 days that goes to the Chair of the White House Council on Competition established under the executive order. That report is to address the "effect of retail concentration and retailers' practices on the conditions of competition in the food industries, including any practices that may violate the Federal Trade Commission Act" and other laws. The FTC is also supposed to offer their consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury to prepare a report on markets for beer, wine, and spirits with an eye on improving access for smaller, independent and new operations. The FTC also has to weigh in on issues like generic drugs and biologics. But the biggest one for agriculture deals with the concept of right to repair. The executive order doesn't use that phrase but calls it "unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment." And there, the ball pretty much is in the FTC's court as the order states that for that and some other key issues, the FTC Chair is "encouraged to consider working with the rest of the Commission to exercise the FTC's statutory rulemaking authority, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law." And it is not limited to right to repair, as the order also directs the FTC to look at area relative to prescription drugs, Internet, occupational licensing, real estate activities and "any other unfair industry-specific practices that substantially inhibit competition." So we will see. The FTC clearly has a big role to play in this executive order and the actions that are expected to come out of it, including several that focus on agriculture, which means the various reports and recommendations coming from the FTC need to be watched very closely, Washington Insider believes.

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