President Barack Obama’s trade team is “scouring the landscape” looking for violations of international trade deals that hurt American workers, farmers and companies, a top trade official said.

“It’s a far more proactive approach than people have taken in the past,” Tim Reif, general counsel in the US Trade Representative’s office, told Reuters.

Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk have made increased enforcement a major focus of their trade policy, which many critics think is otherwise ill-defined.

Kirk’s first enforcement strike was to slap duties on certain Canadian lumber imports after Canada failed to rectify a breach of a bilateral lumber trade deal.

The new trade team also negotiated a solution to a decades-old dispute with the European Union over restrictions on US beef from cattle raised with artificial hormones.

But the administration has been more active at the World Trade Organization as a defendant.

In recent weeks, Canada and Mexico have revived complaints about US country-of-origin-labeling laws for meat.

China also has challenged a 35% “safeguard” tariff that Obama imposed last month on Chinese-made tires, as well as a two-year-old US ban on Chinese poultry meat.

One New WTO Case
During last year’s campaign, Democrats complained that President George W. Bush brought an average of around four cases per year to the World Trade Organization while his predecessor Bill Clinton brought an average of about 11.

The Obama administration has brought one new case at the WTO since taking office in January.

That was a joint challenge with the European Union against restrictions China imposes on exports of certain raw materials. The United States and the EU say the curbs drive up costs for their steel, aluminum and chemical producers.

Kirk’s office also asked the WTO this month to form a panel to hear the US complaint about EU restrictions on poultry imports. But the Bush administration initiated that case just days before leaving office.

Former U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab used to defend the Bush administration’s enforcement record by saying she preferred to resolve disputes quietly through negotiation rather than time-consuming battles at the WTO.

In a speech on October 22nd at the National Press Club, Reif delivered much the same message while insisting enforcement was a greater priority than in the past.

“We spend an enormous amount of time on the front end and the back end, on defense and on offense, trying to resolve matters in a way that doesn’t lead to panels. And we’re doing that vigorously now I can assure you,” Reif said.

Review Due In March
In a separate interview, Reif told Reuters the Obama administration has launched a major enforcement initiative that distinguishes it from its predecessors.

“In 20 years, we’re the first administration to institute a new enforcement approach to an entire series of barriers, which is increasingly the most difficult and the most important set of barriers American exporters face,” he said.

Those are regulatory and other often hidden “nontariff barriers” that block exports of U.S. manufactured and agricultural products, Reif said.

“That (initiative) is well under way and we will be announcing the results of that in March ... We are scouring the landscape for these.”

For example, a senior USTR team recently visited Guatemala to press them to implement labor reforms they promised as part of a trade deal, he said.

Where consultations do not resolve disputes, the United States will use litigation, Reif said.

“We are pursuing (enforcement) very vigorously and I think you will see that over ... the coming weeks,” he said.

He cited the U.S. case against China’s raw material export restraints as an example how the Obama administration is going after non-tariff barriers.

In his speech at the press club, Reif noted that half of the cases between the United States and China at WTO have been resolved without the need for a panel. (Reuters)