Skip to main content

U.S. Trade Policy: A Research Guide

Participants in Trade Policy Development Process

This section discusses how the three branches of the government participate in trade policy development and includes resources for further research. Executive and independent agencies, legislative branch and the judiciary all play a role in developing the U.S. trade policy. Involvement of the private sector to represent their interest in this process is also covered.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. U.S.-Great Briatin-Canada Trade Treaty signed at White House, Washington, D.C. November 17... [1938]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Constitution, Article 2, Section 2 provides that the President "shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur", thus the Constitution gives the President the authority to negotiate trade treaties – with advice and consent of the Senate. In addition, Congress has provided authority to the President via various statutes, and has defined a process by which trade treaties are considered in Congress.

The most recent Congressional statement delineating the authority granted by Congress to the President in this area was via the Trade Agreement Authority included in the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015. Other Congressional authorities granted to the President include authority to impose additional tariffs and quotas, particularly in response to adverse impact from unfairly traded imports. One free trade agreement provides authority to return to most favored nation (MFN) tariff level for Mexico and Canada. 

There is an extensive structured inter-agency coordination process composed of 21 executive branch agencies on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) chaired by Trade Policy Staff Committee (TPSC). TPSC is supported by 90 subcommittees and task forces. The Trade Policy Review Committee, also chaired by the USTR, handles unresolved issues. Each agency has their own internal review process and may have various offices that deal with trade. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection lists 48 agencies involved with providing permissions for trade into and out of the United States.

Historically, the key agency on U.S. Trade Policy is the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) within the Executive Office of the President. Listed below are some of the key executive branch agencies with responsibilities for U.S. trade policy.

The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8 provides the mandate for Congress in the area of U.S. trade policy:

"The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, …but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; …To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations."

In practice, Congress has the role to advise, monitor and legislate on U.S. trade policy issues. Two committees, the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee have primary responsibility for trade policy issues. Each of these committees has a sub-committee on trade.

U.S. government judicial and adjudicative involvement with U.S. trade policy is reflected in the work of the following bodies.