Sizing Up Obama's Choice for Labor, USTR Positions

December 18, 2008 06:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Obama today to unveil Kirk as USTR, Rep. Solis as Labor Dept. leaders

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

President-elect Barack Obama today in Chicago will name former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), as labor secretary, creating a split outlook on Obama's trade policy because Kirk is a relatively free trade proponent, while Solis is an opponent of current approaches to trade agreements. Obama will also formally announce that retiring Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) is his choice for Transportation secretary.

Kirk, Dallas's first African-American mayor, between 1995 and 2001, promoted Dallas on trips overseas and aggressively noted the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As mayor of Dallas in 2000, Kirk called for permanently normalizing trade relations with China, saying that “you’re either a part of the global economic community or you’re going to be left out of it.” He will be joined in the trade policy arena by another free trader Obama choice as Commerce secretary – New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Kirk would be the fourth African American and only Southerner in Obama's Cabinet.

Obama had earlier offered the USTR position to Rep. Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, but Becerra said he wanted to remain in the House. Becerra, recently elected vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a newspaper interview published earlier this week that he had been vetted for the job but was concerned that trade would not be given much "weight" in the new administration. “My concern is how much weight this position would have had and what priority,” Becerra told La Opinion. “I arrived at the conclusion that [trade agreements] will not be priority number one, and perhaps not even two or three.”

Rep. Solis, a close allay of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will appeal to anti-free-trade Democrats. First elected to Congress in 2000, she represents portions of East Los Angeles, including a large portion of the Hispanic community. She opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and helped garner Latino groups to oppose the pact, which passed by a two-vote margin.

Former Clinton administration U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor told the Wall Street Journal that he thinks Obama will continue to oppose bilateral pacts, but will make a big push on larger trade deals like Doha, or regional agreements with Latin America or Asia. The broader trade deals appeal to a broader segment of the US, Kantor said, and aren't any more difficult to pass in Congress than pacts with small countries. "You'll see more multilateral and regional deals," Kantor said. "We might as well go for something big, which engages the rest of the world, rather than focus on bilateral deals, which makes us look like we're just going our own way."

Solis, 51, was born in Los Angeles and is the third Hispanic chosen for the Cabinet (the other two are Bill Richardson and Ken Salazar), and the fifth woman (in addition to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Susan Rice, Janet Napolitano and Lisa Jackson). She has serviced in the House since 2001 and originally backed Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Before becoming a US Representative, she served eight years in the state legislature, where she was the first Latina elected to the state Senate. Her career started in the Carter White House, where she worked in the Office of Hispanic Affairs and the Office of Management and Budget. She has not served on the House Education and Labor Committee but has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's labor policies and is the only member of Congress on the board of American Rights at Work, a pro-labor outfit. She is a proponent of retraining workers for "green" jobs and a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to organize workers. The daughter of a Teamster shop steward and a member of the United Rubber Workers, she led the fight in the California legislature for a higher minimum wage.

Kirk, 53, ran unsuccessfully for one of Texas's U.S. Senate seats in 2002. He has been a partner at the Houston-based law firm of Vinson & Elkins LLP. He served two terms leading Houston, the nation's ninth-largest city. His previous jobs include being an assistant city attorney and chief lobbyist for the city of Dallas, as an aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), and following Bentsen to the Treasury Department at the start of the Clinton administration, returning to Texas in 1994 as secretary of state. In 2002, Kirk ran for a US Senate seat but lost to John Cornyn (R). He then went into private practice as a lawyer. He is a graduate of Austin College and the University of Texas law school. Kirk was named one of the 50 most influential US minority lawyers by The National Law Journal earlier this year.

Comments: Labor groups are very pleased with the selection of Solis, but are definitely wary about Kirk's coming role in trade policy. As previously noted, the two nominees have distinctly different viewpoints about trade policy. I agree with Kantor's comments to the Wall Street Journal that Obama will likely focus on larger trade deals like Doha, and I would add that veteran trade policy experts say that having a former politician in the top USTR position could be the right approach for thorny trade agenda items ahead, including selling wary lawmakers to pass whatever trade agreements surface in the years ahead.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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