House Oversight chair launches probe into USTR digital pivot

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Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are launching an investigation into the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw its support for a trio of World Trade Organization e-commerce proposals that previous administrations had backed.

In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai obtained by POLITICO, Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) complained of a “lack of adequate” consultations with Congress prior to the decision.

And he requested a lengthy list of correspondence, memos, meeting notes and other documents related to USTR’s policy discussions with left-leaning outside groups, members of Congress and other government agencies in the lead up to its October 2023 announcement that it was reversing the U.S. government’s past positions in support of the free flow of data across borders.

“The Committee seeks to understand interactions that may lead to necessary reforms, including legislation Congress could pursue setting new transparency requirements for USTR in forming negotiating positions,” Comer said in the letter.

The letter references a January report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argued that documentation obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests indicate that progressive trade and civil society groups share a "privileged relationship" with the U.S. trade office. Comer said the documents released by the Chamber “shed light” on the “cozy” relationship between those groups and Tai’s office.

“Disturbingly, the pattern of these shady engagements suggest they influenced your controversial decision to abandon longstanding U.S. commitments in promoting digital freedom and U.S. competitiveness in digital markets,” the committee letter said.

One step back: A group of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and industry stakeholders have assailed the Biden administration’s decision to pivot away from his predecessors’ positions on cross-border data flows, data localization requirements and source code, which they suggest has been unduly influenced by progressive groups.

Among other things, the House oversight committee is asking for documentation and other information related to USTR’s communication with Lori Wallach, director of the Rethink Trade program at American Economic Liberties Project, a left-leaning group that is critical of existing free trade agreements, and USTR’s recently departed chief of staff Heather Hurlburt, including their chats via Signal, an audio and video messaging mobile application that uses end-to-end encryption, according to the letter.

“Discussion over Signal chat about either trade policy or consultation opportunities would be a federal record, and USTR should have taken steps to preserve such a record from a non-official communications channel. However, no such record appears to have been disclosed,” Comer wrote.

FWIW: The progressive trade and civil society groups have consistently argued that accusations from Chamber and other parties are hypocritical, and that it is typical for industry groups to advocate for their preferred policy positions.

Comer gave USTR a March 18 deadline to provide the requested documents and information.

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