Since taking office, the Joe Biden administration has only slowly rolled out its trade agenda, sparking criticism from anxious business groups. This delayed rollout is partially the product of trade’s politically sensitive status; dueling ambitions within the administration, in Congress, and among outside players have created a minefield that those responsible for trade policy must pick through. There is another factor, however, that may be contributing to the slow rollout: As of November 2021, many senior trade-related positions within the administration are still empty or have only recently been filled.
The Office of the United States Representative (USTR) is the agency most directly responsible for trade. Six senior officials within USTR require Senate confirmation: the U.S. Trade Representative and three Deputy U.S. Trade Representatives, one of whom serves as the Representative of the United States to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a chief agricultural negotiator, and a chief innovation and intellectual property negotiator. Katherine Tai, the current U.S. Trade Representative, was confirmed by the Senate in March 2021. Her two deputies, however, Sarah Bianchi and Jayme White, were only confirmed in late September. Roughly a month before the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference—an event seen as critical for the health of the international body and where deals on agriculture, e-commerce, and intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines are hopefully going to be struck—the Biden administration’s appointees for WTO ambassador, chief agricultural negotiator, and chief innovation and intellectual property negotiator are all languishing in the Senate.
The Department of Commerce shares some responsibilities for managing trade policy as well. Here too, many officials are not in their seats. U.S. export control policies are managed in large part by the Bureau of Industry and Security; the appointee to lead that office has not been confirmed by the Senate, nor have his two subordinates. The appointee for Undersecretary for International Trade was only announced in mid-September, while Biden’s candidate for Assistant Secretary for Enforcement and Compliance—the official responsible for administering U.S. anti-dumping and countervailing duties—has yet to receive a hearing.
Admittedly, many of these positions are currently being filled by talented officials serving in an acting capacity. There are also capable civil servants and political appointees who did not have to go through the Senate confirmation process staffing these agencies as well. That said, the lack of permanent leadership can hamper organizational effectiveness, particularly if a new leader, with potentially different ideas, is expected to arrive any day now.
The vacancies at Commerce and USTR are part of a broader struggle by the executive branch to move political appointees through the Senate. The steady growth in the number of Senate-confirmed appointees, combined with Congress’ ever-sharper partisanship has resulted in congestion and more empty seats. At the same time, the total number of political appointees, Senate-confirmed and otherwise, has also increased, which critics argue ultimately undercuts the professionalized civil service.
While political appointees serve as important links between presidents and the permanent bureaucracy, and the Senate-confirmation process offers Congress a valuable oversight tool and a rare bit of leverage over the executive branch, some reforms should be possible. For instance, does the Senate need to vote on two USTR deputies in addition to the trade representative themselves, the deputy who serves as ambassador to the WTO, and two key negotiators? Allowing some positions to be filled by non-Senate confirmed individuals—or perhaps transforming them into civil service slots—would have a minimal impact on the Senate’s oversight capacity or presidential autonomy while enabling more effective policymaking. Additionally, the White House's Office of Presidential Personnel, which vets appointees and then shepherds them through the grueling confirmation process, should be provided additional support so it can promptly deliver candidates to the Senate for review.
Stakeholders like the business and labor communities who depend on prompt decision-making by policymakers should push for sensible reforms that limit the number of political appointees subject to Senate confirmation or smooth appointees' passage through the Senate. At the very least, such reforms would help ensure that the administration is fully staffed as it grapples with difficult and complex questions that could determine the future of the international trading system.