Office of the U.S. Trade Representative


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Key Legislation and Jurisdiction 

Information Courtesy Congressional Research Service, IF11016

The U.S. Trade Representative, a Cabinet-level official in the Executive Office of the President, is the President’s principal advisor on trade policy, chief U.S. trade negotiator, and head of the interagency trade policy coordinating process. USTR administers U.S. law to combat “unfair” foreign trade practices (e.g., “Section 301”), and trade preference programs for developing countries. In creating and elevating USTR, Congress sought to balance competing interests between U.S. domestic and foreign policy, among the range of trade-related agencies, and the many domestic stakeholders. Congress also sought to address concerns that trade policy interests were being overlooked under the State Department’s historical lead. Milestone statutes in the USTR’s evolution include the:

  • Trade Expansion Act of 1962. Created an ambassador-level Special Representative for Trade Negotiations (precursor to USTR) to lead the new interagency system to coordinate trade policy, which the act also created.
  • Trade Act of 1974. Designated the Special Representative as the chief U.S. trade negotiator, lead of the trade agreements program, and head of the new private sector advisory committee system, which the act also created. Elevated position to cabinet rank and placed it in the White House.
  • Trade Agreements Act of 1979. Required the President to submit a trade reorganization plan, including to boost the Special Representative’s coordination and functional roles.
  • Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988. Elevated USTR to coordinate trade policy, serve as the President’s principal trade advisor and trade “spokesperson,” and lead U.S. international trade negotiations. Required USTR to report to both the President and Congress.

Components of U.S. Trade Policy

Congress sets U.S. trade negotiating objectives, enacts trade laws, programs, and agreements, and oversees executive trade functions conducted by a range of federal agencies. By statute, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is the lead U.S. trade negotiator and coordinates trade policy through an interagency process, with formal public and private advisory input. Key policy components include:

  • Trade rules-setting, liberalization, and enforcement. Negotiation of trade agreements to open markets and set rules on trade and investment; enforcement of commitments via dispute settlement and U.S. trade laws.
  • Export promotion and controls. U.S. support for export financing, market research, advocacy, and trade missions; licensing and control of strategic exports.
  • Customs, trade remedies, trade adjustment. Regulation of borders; laws to address adverse effects of imports on U.S. industries, national security threats, balance of payments, and “unfair” barriers to U.S. exports; assistance for dislocated workers and firms.
  • Trade preferences. Duty-free access to U.S. markets for eligible developing countries and products, intended to encourage trade and spur their economic growth.
  • Investment. Protection and promotion (through investment treaties and trade agreements); examination of inbound FDI for national security implications.

Trade Disputes and Remedial Actions 


Section 232 allows any department, agency head, or any “interested party” to request the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to initiate an investigation to ascertain the effect of specific imports on U.S. national security. Commerce may self-initiate an investigation.

Section 301 provides a statutory means by which the United States imposes trade sanctions on foreign countries that violate U.S. trade agreements or engage in acts that are “unjustifiable” or “unreasonable” and burden U.S. commerce.