❮ Return to Our Work

Blog Post | July 11, 2023

A Corporate-Led Trade Agenda Is the Wrong Path Forward

Revolving DoorTechTrade Policy
A Corporate-Led Trade Agenda Is the Wrong Path Forward

A key part of Biden’s promise to “Build Back Better” was the embrace of a worker-centered agenda which he assured the public would extend across his cabinet, especially in key areas like trade policy. 

Biden’s appointee to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, explicitly proclaimed that her tenure will be defined as “mak[ing] trade a force for good that encourages a race to the top.” Tai promised to make trade policy a more inclusive process that seriously considers the views of workers from varying backgrounds and experiences to ensure trade “advances economic security and racial and gender equity.” 

This represents a departure from the last forty or so years of American trade policy, in which corporate interests were paramount, and the public was completely shut out from negotiations. This corporate-led agenda resulted in trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which led to the loss of over 800,000 jobs and severely weakened labor rights, and failed deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was a ridiculously designed corporate giveaway. Yet despite these promises, email correspondence obtained through FOIA requests by Demand Progress show that senior officials across USTR, including Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Sarah Bianchi, actively seek input from executives at Big Tech firms such as Amazon and Google. Giving Big Tech a privileged ability to mold American trade policy undermines Biden’s commitment to a new era of trade deals.

Career officials and political appointments alike have solicited input from the major technology companies, including Amazon and Google. Bianchi’s office, in particular, invited lobbyists from both companies to meet to help craft the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the trade agreement that was meant to usher in this new era of worker-centered trade. These private meetings show that the promise of a new direction is already being walked back. 

Given the power, access and tenacity of corporate America, this should come as no surprise. It’s a reminder of corporate America’s capacity to secure favorable policy, and many government officials’ comfort with this longstanding corporate agenda, which the revolving door phenomenon makes explicit. The FOIA release shows that in January 2022, a USTR official representing Bianchi requested multiple meetings with Amazon’s Michael Punke and Jennifer Prescott, both of whom are themselves USTR alumni. Punke had served as deputy trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organization while Prescott was assistant trade representative for Environment and Natural Resources. 

Bianchi’s office also requested an additional meeting with another Amazon lobbyist Arrow Augerot the following month. Augerot had served as USTR deputy assistant for congressional affairs between 2013 and 2016. When reaching out to discuss the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework with Google’s lobbying shop, Bianchi’s staff requested an “off-the-record” meeting to get “feedback” on the IPEF. Unsurprisingly, Google’s point of contact in these emails Behnaz Kibria is also a former USTR official, previously serving as Deputy Chief of Staff. 

Google personnel make another appearance in the FOIA response; the company’s global head of policy and government affairs Karan Bhatia, who is also a former deputy trade representative, pushed Tai to intervene in South Korean deliberations over paring back the power of Apple and Google’s app stores in the country’s Telecommunications Business Act. USTR did in fact get in touch with South Korean government officials on this issue, but the legislation (which was praised by app developers) still passed, opening app store payments to real competition.

These email correspondences are a sharp reminder of the enduring presence of the revolving door, especially in trade policy. Trade lobbyists, oftentimes former USTR officials, freely communicate with current government officials to set up informal chats, bar meet-ups, and formal meetings to coordinate the United States response to thorny trade issues. As explained by David Dayen, these interactions allow lobbyists to define industry interests as synonymous to the national interest. 

It’s impossible for a system like this to serve and be responsive to the public interest. The effects of trade policy are clearly widespread, so it’s important to have public and congressional input from the onset. Inviting public feedback after the rules have already been written behind the scenes is anti-democratic and only serves to benefit the corporations involved and the government officials looking ahead to jumping ship to the private sector. It’s also a serious political miscalculation; the American public’s disdain for previous corporate-written agreements such as NAFTA is well-documented. 

That’s why Bianchi’s eagerness to prioritize Big Tech’s interests in the drafting stage is a big worry. Big Tech’s financial interests are almost always fundamentally at odds with the public’s; a worker-centered agenda cannot flow from these companies writing the rules of engagement. This is especially true because these rules would likely lead to further consolidation of corporate power, limiting governments’ ability to effectively regulate these entities and combat anti-competitive power. Other items on the corporation wish list include requests for trade secrets protections and liability shields that would limit governments’ ability to properly investigate discriminatory source code and algorithms and intrusive surveillance practices. There is also the issue of consumer privacy and data; Big Tech firms have sought to ensure the free flow of data without regard for where data is processed, stored, and transmitted. A guarantee such as this would restrict governments from establishing rules to protect the ways individuals’ personal data are collected, stored and transmitted. 

It would be a mistake for Biden and Tai to continue on this path of corporate-designed trade policy. Biden’s choice of Jeffrey Zients as Chief of Staff—who also embodies this spirit of corporate profiteering his administration should be cracking down upon—was already a huge misstep. In the three months since he was appointed, Zients has orchestrated a rightward policy shift on crime, border and environmental issues, with the approval of ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project a case in point. 
With the 2024 elections fast approaching, it is critical that the president fulfill the campaign promises that provided the base for Biden’s success in his first two years. Now is not the time to besmirch the administration’s legacy with another corporate-driven policy shift; as we’ve repeatedly argued, Biden’s best chance of success is to show that the government he runs is ready to fight for the people. A key part of that is public-interest minded personnel who believe in cracking down on corporations that violate federal laws and actively harm the American people in the name of profit.

PHOTO: “The Biden Institute’s Sarah Bianchi” by Third Way is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Revolving DoorTechTrade Policy

More articles by Timi Iwayemi

❮ Return to Our Work