Congress wants USTR to bulk up

Congress wants USTR to bulk up

While the duties of the U.S. Trade Representative's office have expanded, the office's budget and staff have not. Some members of Congress and the trade community say the agency needs more money, but U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick isn't joining the chorus.

With only 120 employees, the USTR office is lean for a federal agency. A General Accounting Office report in January questioned whether the USTR, which is part of the Executive Office of the President, can continue to perform its responsibilities without more staff. The report found the USTR's pursuit of free-trade agreements is "straining available resources."

"If you believe we should have seven free-trade agreements in the oven, the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the World Trade Organization, that's quite a lot for an office that size," said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics. "For the agenda they are running now, they are understaffed."

The USTR's workload has increased since 2002, when Congress approved Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which gives the president broader authority to pursue bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.

In response to the GAO report, Zoellick agreed that his agency could use additional funding. "Both the president and bipartisan trade supporters in the Congress agree that we cannot carry out the post-TPA trade agenda with a pre-TPA budget," Zoellick told the GAO. "That is why the president and Congress have supported budget increases to bring USTR resources more in line with the revitalized trade agenda."

But Zoellick demurred on the issue of increased staff. He said his agency must be "agile, flexible and adaptable - not bureaucratic." The fiscal 2005 proposed budget, which was released three weeks after the GAO report, requested $40 million for the USTR, a $2 million reduction from this year. "We support the president's budget request," said Richard Mills, a USTR spokesman.

Hurbauer called the budget request "pitiable." Some members of Congress agree. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce-Justice-State, which oversees the budget for the USTR. Wolf, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., helped increase funding for this fiscal year to focus on issues related to China.

Wolf said the 2004 budget level was "insufficient" and "woefully inadequate" to continue the USTR's operations. "Astonishingly, the fiscal year 2005 USTR budget request released in early February includes less money than was provided this year. Less money. Yet the office says it will begin seven more free-trade agreements," Wolf said. "And they hope to accomplish this extra work with less money than the year before?"

Wolf spoke in March when he introduced legislation to take responsibilities for enforcement of trade deals away from the USTR and move them to the Commerce Department. The proposal was made in part because Commerce is large enough to handle the workload.

A spokesman for Wolf said the congressman has not yet decided what level of funding to seek for the USTR for 2005. But another increase would almost definitely have bipartisan support in both chambers.

The increases don't have to be large to make the agency more effective, said Frank Vargo, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers. "An extra 15 (people) would go a long way," he said. "Obviously, they're getting the job done, but it's a burnout place. They don't have enough on the negotiating side, they don't have enough on the enforcement side."

One way the USTR has found to stretch its resources has been to borrow experts from other agencies, particularly the Agriculture, Commerce and State departments, when needed. The GAO said that last year the USTR had more than 30 people "on loan" from other agencies.

Hufbauer said staffing requirements for negotiation of free-trade agreements have forced the USTR to cut back in other areas. "The way they've solved this issue is to squeeze out the economic and evaluation process," he said. The result, he said, is a trade policy that is more heavily influenced by outside pressures to pursue specific trade agreements - an example is Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., pushing for inclusion of the Dominican Republic.

"If you don't have these people in your office, your priorities are much more shaped by the squeaky wheel and less by what has happened in the past or what could happen with future deals," Hufbauer said. "There's no USTR bureaucracy to provide a counter-push."