June 23, 2020 4:30PM

Voting on WTO Withdrawal

Next month, Congress may be voting on resolutions to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the Senate, the vote is based on a joint resolution introduced by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO). Politico reports the following:

The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Sen. Josh Hawley (R‐​Mo.) is entitled to a vote on his resolution to withdraw from the World Trade Organization in late July, after the Senate returns from a two‐​week recess.

… Hawley would be entitled to a vote on a motion to proceed to his resolution on the first day when the Senate is back from its recess, the parliamentarian ruled. If that motion succeeds, then the Senate would vote on the actual resolution, subject to certain expedited procedures, the parliamentarian said.

In the House, the vote was requested by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D‐​Or.) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ). Politico’s Doug Palmer reports that the House parliamentarian says a vote can be held there as well.

As background, the statute implementing the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which created the WTO, provides for the possibility of a vote on withdrawal every five years. Votes were held in the House in 2000 and 2005. In 2005, the House voted 338–86 against withdrawal. In 2000, the vote was 363–56 against withdrawal. (The Senate has never voted on this.) No votes have been taken since then.

As I described here, based on his New York Times op‐​ed on the subject, Senator Hawley does not have a very good understanding of the WTO. Congressman DeFazio also wrote an op‐​ed that demonstrates only a limited understanding. For example, he refers to the WTO’s “protections for foreign investors,” something it does not have. (Many bilateral and regional trade agreements have these, but the WTO does not.)

In my view, the United States should stay in the WTO and these votes are a chance for common sense to prevail. See some arguments I laid out myself here, and with some colleagues here and here. My colleague Dan Ikenson wrote about the issue here.

Of course, there are plenty of issues to address related to the WTO. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a frequent WTO critic, recently called the WTO “a mess,” although he has not called for withdrawal, and in fact has said, “if we didn’t have it, we’d have to invent it.” There are certainly problems with the WTO, but it’s sort of like saying the U.S. federal government or state and local governments are “a mess”: All institutions are imperfect and in need of reform.

It would actually be helpful to have congressional input on how to reform the WTO, as at least some members of Congress will have useful contributions to make. These requests for a withdrawal vote may not have been designed to promote reform, but nevertheless there is an opportunity here to put forward reform proposals. (For example, my colleague Jim Bacchus and I recently wrote about how WTO disputes are taking too long and we proposed ways to speed up the process; and Jim and my colleague Inu Manak wrote about how the concept of “special and differential treatment” for developing countries at the WTO needs reform.)

Along with Dan, Jim, and Inu, I’ll be talking about the future of the WTO at an online Cato event on July 16. The prospects for these congressional votes will certainly be high on our agenda.