Hawley presses for vote to withdraw U.S. from the WTO

Doug Palmer

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said Thursday that he is pushing Congress to vote on a resolution to withdraw from the World Trade Organization, taking an advantage of an opportunity that comes every five years.

“The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep, long-standing flaws in our global economic system that demand reform," Hawley said in a statement, which came just a few days after he wrote a controversial op-ed that appeared in The New York Timescalling for the WTO to be eliminated.

"International organizations like the WTO have enabled the rise of China and benefited elites around the globe while hollowing out American industry, from small towns to once-thriving urban centers,” Hawley continued. “We need to return production to America, secure critical supply chains, and encourage domestic innovation. Pulling out of the WTO is a good first step."

Hawley, a former Missouri attorney general elected to Congress in 2018, has been one of the loudest voices on Capitol Hill calling for forcing China to pay compensation for the health and economic fallout of the coronavirus, which originated in the country's Hubei province.

The United States can't unilaterally abolish the WTO, but its withdrawal would further weaken the 25-year-old institution. Critics on both the left and the right have complained that the WTO has not kept pace with the times.

The Trump administration in particular has complained that that the body's rules lock the U.S. in an unfair trading relationship with certain developing countries, such as China and India, by allowing them to impose higher tariffs on many goods.

President Donald Trump has periodically threatened to withdraw from the WTO but has never acted on the impulse. But, under the direction of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the Trump administration has crippled the WTO's Appellate Body by blocking the appointment of new judges.

USTR laid out its lengthy critique of the WTO in its annual Trade Policy Agenda report released in February. However, it stopped short of recommending withdrawal from the global trade body.

"Despite the serious challenges facing the World Trade Organization, the United States values the WTO and is working diligently within the organization to find solutions," USTR said in the report.

A provision in the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreement Act allows Congress to vote on continued membership in the WTO every five years. That would only happen if both the House and the Senate approve a resolution.

U.S. lawmakers have not voted on WTO membership since 2005, when the House defeated a withdrawal resolution 338-86. Five years earlier, a similar resolution failed by a 363-56 vote. The Senate has never voted on withdrawal.

The Republican Party has grown more suspicious of trade under Trump's leadership, potentially setting the stage for a vigorous congressional debate over continued U.S. membership.

Hawley’s op-ed ignited much criticism on Twitter among those who follow trade issues. The National Taxpayers Union wrote a fact-check blog post of certain claims by Hawley.

NTU’s Bryan Riley criticized Hawley’s argument that “foreign agriculture won concession after concession, while American farmers struggled to get fair access to markets.” The group pulled USDA data to show that U.S. agricultural exports have more than doubled since the WTO was created, adding that “leaving the WTO would be a devastating blow to farmers and ranchers, who increasingly rely on world trade.”

“Sen. Hawley is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. The facts show that Americans have benefited tremendously from growing trade and investment under the WTO,” Riley wrote.

Simon Lester, a trade policy specialist at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, also pushed back.

He argued pulling out of the WTO would be counterproductive for the goal of opening up the Chinese market because Chinese tariffs were higher before it joined the WTO. "If the U.S. pulls out of the WTO, U.S. producers would face higher tariffs on their exports to China than their competitors do," Lester said.

Sabrina Rodriguez contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the last time Congress voted on WTO withdrawal. It was in 2005.