What’s more, this office has been quite busy over the years representing the United States in dozens of cases brought by and against the United States at the WTO. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration brought two new cases against China over farm subsidies and export restrictions while securing favorable rulings in ongoing cases concerning local content requirements in India and aircraft subsidies in Europe. Clinton has given no indication that her proposal amounts to anything more than renaming that existing office and hiring some more people to work in it.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has proposed the creation of a new office in the Department of Commerce he is calling the “American Desk,” which would oversee numerous trade programs currently located in different cabinet departments.
Like Clinton’s proposal for a “trade prosecutor,” Trump’s “American Desk” proposal does not include any real change in policy, just a minor bureaucratic reshuffling. Trump explained his reasoning at a recent campaign event: “American trade policy is currently mismanaged by dozens of competing bureaucracies spread over the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, State and Treasury, and the U.S. Trade Representative doesn’t know where he’s going.” In Trump’s administration, “all trade policy will be consolidated in to one office. It will report to a thing called the American Desk. I will call three times a day.”
Trump seems to believe that federal agencies will be more useful if someone regularly reminds them to work harder. But there’s no real reason to expect that rebranding reorganized federal agencies will actually change how those agencies operate, and the Trump campaign hasn’t offered any specific examples of how it could.
Interestingly, Trump’s reshuffling idea looks a lot like a proposal Barack Obama made late in the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama proposed creating a “Secretary of Business” that would oversee all of the federal government’s various business subsidy programs. The plan was criticized by the Romney campaign, which chided that Obama’s “solution to everything is to add another bureaucrat.”
Like Obama’s proposal, Trump’s reshuffling idea is politically impractical. Moving existing programs to a different department would take jurisdiction over those programs away from congressional committees whose approval would be required before the move takes place. In short, the initiative would require the administration to spend a lot of political capital for no real benefit.
Ultimately, Trump’s American Desk and Clinton’s Trade Prosecutor proposals are just smoke and mirrors, used to disguise the fact they don’t actually have creative or unique trade policy ideas. Voters will need to look elsewhere to distinguish between two candidates who both claim to be the only genuine protectionist on the ballot.