The thought of one particular congressman potentially becoming the top trade official in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration has outraged trade reform advocates hopeful that the incoming president would stick to his word regarding his tough-on-trade campaign rhetoric.
That congressman is outgoing Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, who sought the open Senate seat in his home state but did not receive enough votes to qualify for the runoff election on Saturday. He is not seeking reelection to his House seat.
Politico reported earlier this month that Boustany had been engaged with Trump’s transition team about serving as US trade representative in the administration, and the Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee confirmed such discussions with Inside US Trade, saying he’d take the job if offered.
“I’m certainly interested,” he said.
While the Louisiana Republican is selling himself for his role in securing passage of two major trade enforcement bills enacted by Congress in 2015, he’s been in favor of all of the major free trade agreements Trump has stood in fierce opposition to. Boustany voted in favor of fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is a cofounder of the Friends of the TPP caucus. An unabashed free trader, he has voted in favor of trade agreements with Peru and South Korea, as well as trade promotion agreements with Panama and Colombia.
“The prospect of him as a USTR candidate makes Trump’s trade campaign, campaign trade commitments, and focus seem extremely hypocritical,” Lori Wallach, director and founder of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, told Business Insider. “I mean, it’s a little bit like inviting Dracula to run your blood bank.”
Wallach ridiculed Boustany for not declaring opposition to the TPP until he was “going down in flames” in the Senate race, she said, adding the caveat that he was opposing it in its current version only because it didn’t go far enough to meet demands made in the trade promotion authority legislation, particularly regarding intellectual property protections for the pharmaceutical industry. Boustany had additionally expressed concerns about how the deal would affect Louisiana’s sugar and rice industries.
“Not because it would kill jobs, not because it would help China because it didn’t deal with currency manipulation, but because it didn’t do enough for one particular industry to avoid competition,” she said, adding that the discussion between Boustany and the Trump team “makes a lot of people wonder whether Trump really intends to do any reforms on trade policy.”
“Boustany would be the last person you would have as USTR if that was your plan,” she said.
Michael Stumo, CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, told Business Insider that he felt it was “unlikely” Boustany would get the pick because it would be a total “betrayal of Trump’s campaign promises and his base.”
“Boustany is a pro-offshoring globalist, untroubled by trade deficits, who opposed fixing currency manipulation and helped lead the unsuccessful effort to ram the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress,” he said in a statement.
But the source who spoke with Politico said Boustany could make a “strong case” for the job based on his role in authoring the trade enforcement provisions in 2015’s Customs and Border Protection reauthorization. The source added that the need to expand trade is not mutually exclusive with what he believes is Trump’s foremost priority of stronger trade enforcement.
Indeed, Trump has spent much of the campaign – and even a significant portion of his “thank you” tour rallies in recent days – railing against China, labeling the country as the main culprit for the loss of many manufacturing jobs in the US. The president-elect has promised to label China a currency manipulator as soon as he assumes office, making appeals for tougher enforcement against Chinese trade practices.
Boustany, who served as co-chair of the congressional US-China working group, voted against legislation in 2010 related to currency manipulation.
While trade reform activists are appalled at the idea of Boustany in the position, House Republicans believe Boustany is intriguing as a potential USTR.
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Saying he’s sure the Trump transition team will make “a very appropriate selection,” House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Kevin Brady told Business Insider in a recent interview that he’s pleased Boustany is under consideration.
“Look, I know Dr. Boustany very well,” he said of the congressman, who used to work as a cardiovascular surgeon in his home state. “And I am so always impressed with him, his knowledge of trade, his involvement in trade agreements.”
“He also, in the House, led the enforcement efforts that became part of the new law – the customs bill that was signed earlier this year by the president gives us those unprecedented enforcement powers,” he said.
Brady called Boustany an “incredibly hard worker” who “brings a lot to the table.”
The other person who has been mentioned as a potential USTR is Dan DiMicco, the former Nucor CEO who is leading Trump’s trade-related transition. That choice would be much more appealing to trade reformers.
“A lot of people think Dan DiMicco, a guy who … aligns with a lot of Trump’s views on trade and is coming from having run a big steel company that had to deal with Chinese cheating and all the subsidies, would be more compatible to what Trump says he wants,” Wallach said.
A Boustany selection would alienate the voters who helped put Trump over the top in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all a part of the so-called blue wall that Trump was not expected to crack in the November election, Wallach said. She added that the reported conversations had “a lot of people sending around emails saying, ‘Oh my God, even the trade stuff is a con job.'”
- AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
“I think that there are a lot of people when they saw that meeting who said, ‘What the f—,'” Wallach said. “It’s like, you must be kidding. Let’s, like, have Martin Luther become the Pope. It’s antithetical to the basic philosophies.”
Wallach said Boustany was the “corporate special interests'” last chance to “undermine” the changes Trump campaigned on.
“I mean, just the signal it sends,” she said. “If there are a lot of people doubting what Trump really means on his veracity about anything, the last thing you would want to do is send a signal of total hypocrisy in the first few weeks of your transition.”
Neither Boustany nor the Trump transition team returned requests for comment from Business Insider.