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Until the early 1960s, the Department of State was responsible for conducting U.S. trade and investment diplomacy and administering the President's trade agreement program.  In the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, Congress called for the President to appoint a Special Representative for Trade Negotiations to conduct U.S. trade negotiations.  The Act provided for the Special Trade Representative to serve as chair of a new interagency trade organization established to make recommendations to the President on his trade agreement program. The legislation reflected Congressional interest in achieving a better balance between competing domestic and international interests in formulating and implementing U.S. trade policy.

In 1963, President Kennedy created a new Office of the Special Trade Representative (STR) in the Executive Office of the President and designated two new Deputies - one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Geneva, Switzerland.  Through the mid-1960's, STR had the chief responsibility for U.S. participation in the Kennedy Round of multilateral trade negotiations held under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

In the 1970s, the Congress substantially expanded STR's responsibilities. Section 141 of the Trade Act of 1974 provided a legislative charter for STR as part of the Executive Office of the President, making it responsible for the trade agreements programs under the Tariff Act of 1930, the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, and the 1974 act. The act also made STR directly accountable to both the President and the Congress for these and other trade responsibilities and elevated the Special Trade Representative to cabinet level.

Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1979 consolidated and further broadened STR's responsibilities. The 1979 reorganization and Executive Order 12188 of the next year renamed STR as the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), centralized U.S. government policy-making and negotiating functions for international trade, and greatly expanded the office. These changes:

  • Assigned lead responsibility to USTR for developing and coordinating U.S. trade policy and for conducting international trade and trade-related investment negotiations;

  • Designated the Trade Representative as the principal advisor to the President on trade policy and on the impact of other U.S. government policies on  international trade;

  • Authorized USTR to set U.S. policy on key trade issues, such the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and "the assertion and protection of the rights of the United States under all bilateral and multilateral international trade and commodity agreements."  USTR shares with the Department of Commerce responsibility for monitoring foreign government compliance with United States trade agreements.

  • Made the Trade Representative the Vice Chairman of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a non-voting member of the Export-Import Bank Board of Directors, and a member of the National Advisory Committee on International Monetary and Financial Policies; and

  • Made the USTR the chief U.S. representative in bilateral negotiations over barriers to investment.

  • The Trade and Tariff Act of 1984 gave USTR the further responsibility of developing and coordinating implementation of U.S. policies concerning trade in services.

USTR's authority was further enhanced under the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.  Section 1601 of the 1988 legislation codified and expanded USTR's responsibilities.  In so doing, the legislation reinforced the Congressional-Executive partnership for the conduct of U.S. trade policy. Among USTR's additional responsibilities as enumerated in the 1988 act are:

  • To coordinate trade policy with other agencies;

  • To act as the principal international trade policy spokesperson of the President;

  • To report and be responsible to the President and the Congress on the administration of the trade agreements program, and to advise them on non-tariff barriers, international commodity agreements, and other matters relating to the trade agreements program; and

  • To chair the interagency committee that assists and advises the President in developing and implementing U.S. trade policy.

The 1988 legislation also included a "Sense of the Congress" statement that the USTR should be the senior representative on any body the President establishes to advise him on overall economic policies in which international trade matters predominate and that the USTR should be included in all economic summits and other international meetings in which international trade is a major topic.  Finally, this legislation further elevated the importance of USTR in trade matters by shifting to USTR the Presidential responsibility for implementing actions under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 (enforcement of U.S. rights under trade agreements), subject to specific direction, if any, from the President.

The Uruguay Round Agreements Act, enacted in 1994, specifies that USTR has lead responsibility for all negotiations under the auspices of the WTO. The conclusion of such major comprehensive trade agreements as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the WTO Agreement vastly expanded the scope and task of USTR's efforts to implement and enforce U.S. trade agreements.

The Trade and Development Act of 2000 created two new posts in USTR Chief Agricultural Negotiator and Assistant United States Trade Representative for African Affairs. The principal function of the Chief Agricultural Negotiator is to conduct trade negotiations and enforce trade agreements relating to United States agricultural interests and products. The AUSTR for African Affairs serves as the chief advisor to the U.S. Trade Representative on issues of trade and investment with Africa and serves as coordinator and point of contact within the Administration on such issues.