OMAHA (DTN) -- Agriculture access needs to be a top priority, senators told Robert Lighthizer, the nominee for the U.S. Trade Representative, during his nomination hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
Those ag-state senators also cautioned Lighthizer to ensure any change in the North American Free Trade Agreement don't screw up agricultural exports to either Mexico or Canada.
Lighthizer told senators that, like President Donald Trump, he believes in an "American first" trade policy.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, praised Lighthizer's long history in trade work, including serving as a deputy USTR under the Reagan administration. Hatch also expressed concern that the Obama administration did a poor job in key areas such as patent protection and intellectual property. "Intellectual property is the backbone of our economy," Hatch said. "It affects large and small companies across America."
Hatch was also critical over Democratic demands that the House and Senate must vote for a waiver for Lighthizer because of his past work in 1990s and 1980s representing Chinese and Brazilian business interests in lobbying before the federal government.
Lighthizer was asked just who would be in charge of trade for the Trump administration. President Trump created the National Trade Council at the White House and put Peter Navarro in charge. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has a role in trade policy as well. "Who's going to be in charge of trade?" Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked Lighthizer.
Lighthizer said he expects to have the full statutory authority but work collaboratively with both the White House and Commerce Department. "I expect it to work as it has, and I expect it to be very cooperative," he said, but added he will need more resources because of the full trade agenda proposed by President Trump. "If I were in the administration, I would be in there lobbying right now for more resources for USTR," Lighthizer said.
Lighthizer got a lot of questions about China and steel issues, as well renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. The key in NAFTA talks, Lighthizer said, would be to deal with manufacturing and the digital economy.
"We have to do something for manufacturing," Lighthizer said. "We have a huge trade deficit in manufacturing."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was one of multiple senators on the committee who cautioned Lighthizer on changes to NAFTA that would disrupt the flow of agricultural products to Mexico and Canada. When it comes to agricultural exports under NAFTA, Lighthizer said, "We have to be careful not to lose what we gained."
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted the Trump administration had listed 24 trade priorities with agriculture ranked third on the list. Due to low prices, Roberts said agriculture should be at the top priority. Roberts also said the Trump administration needs to move quickly to advance agricultural trade. He also noted Kansas has a large stock of grain right now.
"If we don't sell agricultural commodities in the next several months -- we are at a 16-year low in prices -- we will all have a problem on our hands," Roberts said.
Roberts also criticized a suggestion that the Trump administration might bring back country-of-origin labeling. Roberts noted, "We've been down this road before ... We don't need to go down that road again."
Lighthizer pointed out he had a long history in agriculture in prior posts at the USTR and had been asked by President Ronald Reagan to negotiate with the Soviet Union to restart grain sales after the 1970s grain embargo. Lighthizer added he also had gotten some sage advice on agriculture from a senator. "'As you go through doing your job, remember that you don't eat steel.' That is something that stuck with me ... So I assure you we will prioritize agriculture," Lighthizer said.
Agriculture was set to be a winner under the Trans Pacific Partnership, Lighthizer said. In getting back to ag trade, Lighthizer said Japan would be a primary target to increase market access and reduce barriers.
"It is hard for me to understand why we tolerate so many barriers to agricultural trade when America is the No. 1 producer of agricultural products ... I think opening up more markets for agricultural sales is a priority for us," Lighthizer said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., challenged Lighthizer by asking how he would get tough with China on intellectual property and currency manipulation. Stabenow pointed out that President Trump and his families have businesses overseas, and this would seem to challenge Lighthizer's job. Stabenow cited the 38 trademarks given to the Donald J. Trump brand just last week. She asked what happens when the interests of the U.S. "Are put at odds with the business interests of the president and his family."
Lighthizer defended Trump while saying he knew nothing about the president's businesses and trademarks. Lighthizer rejected any suggestion the president would do anything not in the national interests. "This idea that this president would do anything untoward is so far out of the realm of possibility," he said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
© Copyright 2017 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.