Lighthizer Confirmed as U.S. Trade Representative After Waiver Approval

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

I hope you’re fond of domestic automobiles.

The Trump administration is setting the table to make importing cars more difficult with the U.S. Senate confirming Robert Lighthizer in an 82-14 vote as the U.S. trade representative, prepping the country for an assertive trust from the White House’s America First trade strategy.

Lighthizer will lead communicating U.S. trade policy with Congress and foreign countries, especially as they relate to expected changes to import taxes. (In case you’re wondering, he is absolutely, unequivocally, a 110 percent for them.) Lighthizer has even claimed using tariffs to promote American industry was a “Republican tenet” dating back to the establishment of the party.

Voting results aide, it was actually a close call for the country’s new trade representative. Investigators discovered Lighthizer represented the Brazilian government 30 years ago in a trade dispute with U.S. ethanol producers and he was required to obtain a special waiver to bypass the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The waiver had to pass through Congress and receive the president’s signature before Lighthizer was eligible office.

Under the law, no person who has previously represented a foreign government in a trade negotiations against the U.S. can head the trade representative’s office. Congress had previously waived the ban for Charlene Barshefsky, President Clinton’s choice for the position in 1997.

Lighthizer overcame some unexpected opposition from several Republican senators, including John McCain and Ben Sasse, who were attempting to block his confirmation. According to Bloomberg, the pair voted against his appointment, along with Republican Cory Gardner, after voicing strong concerns over the administration’s protectionist rhetoric and plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Other no votes included Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

If protectionism is what they’re concerned with, their worries are well-founded. Lighthizer has repeatedly condemned China for unfair trade practices and, in a 2011 article for The Washington Times about Trump, he wrote:

“The icon of modern conservatism, Ronald Reagan, imposed quotas on imported steel, protected Harley-Davidson from Japanese competition, restrained import of semiconductors and automobiles, and took myriad similar steps to keep American industry strong. The same can be said of Richard Nixon. In 1971, Nixon imposed a temporary tariff on all imports in response to what he perceived to be unfair foreign economic policies.”

I don’t know if Mr. Lighthizer has ever ridden a Harley from the Reagan administration, but there was a good reason for the company to fear Japanese imports — and protecting it didn’t help it improve the build quality of its products through the ’80s. Then again, the HD motorcycle brand may not be what it is today without a little help from the government.

Still, the idea of restricting the importation of any motorized product to better serve a domestic company is guaranteed to be controversial topic among enthusiasts. We can look back at Malaise-era automobiles with nostalgia, but nobody wants to see them return.

One of Lighthizer’s first tasks will be to consult Congress on the administration’s NAFTA plans, which Trump has been adamant about reforming — if not abolishing altogether. Afterward, its likely he’ll tackle existing trade deals with South Korea and play hardball with China. The administration has promised to strictly enforce all existing trade rules, especially those in Asia. During his confirmation hearing, Lighthizer stated he would bring “as many actions as are justified” to the World Trade Organization and bilateral dispute panels.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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13 of 17 comments
  • Thirty-three Thirty-three on May 12, 2017

    It's a good thing that Honda, Toyota and others are already manufacturing cars in the US. I'm sure they use lots of imported parts, but I suspect GM, Ford and FCA do as well.


    If Trump REALLY wants to do right, he needs to call or tweet GM and demand that Oldsmobiles become built again!

    • See 10 previous
    • Heino Heino on May 15, 2017

      @28-Cars-Later MOGA! MOGA! MOGA! MOGA!

  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
  • Teddyc73 Since when did automakers or car companies become "OEM". Probably about the same time "segment" or "class" became "space". I wish there were more sedans. I would like an American sedan. However, as others have stated, if they don't sell in large enough quantities to be profitable the automakers...I mean, "OEMs" aren't going to build them. It's simple business.
  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.