The unit has been created, but we're waiting on its results
During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama promised to stand up "for American workers and businesses in the global marketplace, taking on China's unfair trade practices through a new trade enforcement unit to level the playing field."
By the time he made that promise, Obama had already used a Feb. 28, 2012, executive order to establish the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which would undertake "robust monitoring and enforcement of U.S. rights under international trade agreements, and enforcement of domestic trade laws."
The center is designed to coordinate responses to potential violations of international trade agreements among agencies such as the United States Trade Representative and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and Treasury. It is also tasked with conducting outreach to U.S. workers, businesses, and others to identify unfair foreign trade practices.
So what are unfair trade practice?
Examples could be other countries' use of high tariffs, strict and often unclear regulatory rules, subsidies to state-owned businesses or intellectual property violations, in order to gain an advantage in trade deals, said Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies U.S. trade policy.
The new center, rather than creating an entirely new method of combating unfair trade policies, coordinates existing resources, said Paul Rosenthal, partner at the law firm Kelley Drye and a specialist in international trade law.
"It's a good thing, but it's not a dramatic thing that has resulted in dramatic changes," he added.
The office's web page says it's charged with "bringing a more aggressive, whole-of-government approach to addressing unfair trade practices around the world."
So the center exists, but what about follow through?
When President Barack Obama released his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, he addressed the new trade-enforcement unit specifically. Obama's budget proposal included $15 million "to accelerate operations" of the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center.
We should note that most official documents relating to the center downplay one aspect of Obama's promise -- a focus on China. When the FAQ page addresses the question of China, for instance, it doesn't address China by name. Instead, the FAQ answer says the office's "purpose is to help ensure that all of our trading partners play by WTO rules and abide by their obligations."
However, the president's previous budget proposal, for fiscal year 2014, did single out China, saying the unit's purpose is "to aggressively challenge unfair trade practices and trade barriers around the world, including in China."
Because presidential budgets are wish lists that are subject to revision -- and often outright rejection -- by Congress, we are inclined to wait before rating this a Promise Kept. Giving us additional pause, the center has not posted a news release in almost a year.
On March 14, 2013, the office posted a release titled, "U.S. Trade Representative Kirk Seeks World Trade Organization Dispute Settlement on Indonesia's Import Restrictions on Horticultural and Animal Products." Prior to that, the center issued news releases on India's restrictions on United States solar exports, Indonesia's restrictions on horticultural and animal products, import restrictions by Argentina, and, in September 2012, Chinese export subsidies on automobiles and auto parts.
So although the center is up and running, we'll withhold judgment until we see how Obama's budget proposal fares and whether the center generates more activity in the coming months. For now, we'll rate this promise In the Works.
Barack Obama, fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, March 4, 2014
Barack Obama, "Executive Order -- Establishment of the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center," Feb. 28, 2012
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, "ITEC Frequently Asked Questions," accessed March 6, 2014
International Trade Administration, budget estimates, fiscal year 2014
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, "U.S. Trade Representative Kirk Seeks World Trade Organization Dispute Settlement on Indonesia's Import Restrictions on Horticultural and Animal Products," March 14, 2013
Interview with Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, March 4, 2014.
Interview with Paul Rosenthal, partner at Kelley Drye Law Firm, March 6, 2014.