Rare Unanimity: Katherine Chi Tai Clears the Senate

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Diversity has been President Joe Biden’s trademark as he assembles his cabinet. Today’s Republican Party, if anything, is the opposite of diversity, being now essentially the party of mostly an all-white political base.  

So how is all this playing out as the Senate performs its constitutional duty of confirming the Biden nominees?  The most controversial was Biden’s pick to be Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, the first native American to be nominated.  As a congresswoman representing New Mexico, her public record on land-use issues raised concerns among the Senate Republicans, who voted against her with four exceptions.

By a vote of 50-49, Xavier Becerra, was approved. He has a wealth of public experience (former congressman and California Attorney General), but was criticized by Republicans for having little or no expertise to head up the Department of Health and Human Resources (a cabinet position that oversees the COVID-19).

By contrast, Katherine Chi Tai received a 98-0 vote, unanimous support from both parties as the next U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). This is a bit odd, considering the USTR will have a pivotal role in shaping the Administration’s trade policy, and more significantly the U.S. China relationship, currently plagued with tensions and distrust. 

Prior to the Trump presidency, the USTR role was limited to negotiating trade agreements.  That changed with Robert Lighthizer, whose hawkish trade views, aligned with Trump’s, led to an escalating trade war with China. Indeed, Lighthizer has been described as the trade chief who ruffled feathers from Beijing to Brussels.   

Katherine Tai is the antithesis of her predecessor.  Will USTR return to the traditional role, limited to negotiating bilateral and multilateral trade agreements and negotiating with Congress to get them approved (a more difficult task).  Or will she play a major role in shaping Biden’s trade policy and dealing with China?

Katherine Tai has a wealth of experience that has prepared her for this position, including clerk for a U.S. district court, partnering at several D.C. law firms, as the USTR General Counsel, and most recently chief counsel to the House Ways & Means Committee.   Tai is a Yale- and Harvard-educated daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, speaks fluent Mandarin, and is known throughout Washington for her calm, good-natured negotiating style. Her former boss, House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal, observed, “she’s a leader who inspires confidence through her wisdom, good nature, and steadiness, providing insightful counsel and keeps a level head in the most pressure-filled situations.”

Tai’s task will be challenging on many fronts.  As President Biden moves to repair the damage Trump’s authoritarian trade policies had on our foreign partners, much of this work will land on USTR Tai’s desk.  She must also cope with problems on the domestic front such as American businesses directly affected by trade actions, labor unions and environmentalists who demand that trade pacts impose our higher standards on others.

Tai is off to a good start with a 98-0 confirmation by the Senate.  “She has tons of credibility across  the political spectrum, and with Republicans,” said a former Trump trade advisor Clete Williams, who worked alongside Tai and USTR earlier in their careers.  “She will bring to the table the ability to come up with unusual solutions that can bridge factions.”

Not only will the U.S. government now be represented in China by a top U.S. official who speaks Mandarin. She also received the confidence vote of all the Senate Republicans at a moment when hatred of Asians is a dangerous virus spreading across the heartland.  

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Don Bonker is a former Member of Congress from Washington’s Third District and former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Trade. He now lives on Bainbridge Island and consults on international trade issues.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Don is a real pro. Long solid history with trade and China. I still recall with fondness a two week multicity visit to China with Don in ’82.

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