LOADED: Corporate Interests Dominate the
Official U.S. Government Trade Advisory System
March 30th, 2023
Nearly 500 official U.S. trade advisors, most of them representing corporate interests, have access to classified U.S. trade texts and secretive processes. The public, press, and, to some degree, even Congress are locked out. The combination of extreme secrecy and this corporate-loaded U.S. trade advisory system has given commercial interests a privileged role in developing U.S. trade agreements since the advisory system’s establishment in 1974. This helps to explain how closed-door trade negotiations have become a favorite venue for corporate interests to achieve policy goals unrelated to trade that could not succeed in the sunshine of public debate.
Many people remain unaware that pharmaceutical corporations rigged past U.S. “free trade” agreements with extended monopoly protections to raise medicine prices. Or that Wall Street interests hijacked pacts to evade regulation. Or that other firms pushed investor protections into deals to help offshore jobs to low-wage nations. Today, Big Tech interests in the advisory system want to rig trade deals to derail the privacy protections, online civil rights, gig worker protections, and anti-monopoly policies we need.
The United States is currently engaged in major Asian trade-agreement negotiations called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), as well as trade talks with Kenya and Taiwan. Negotiations for a major trade deal in the Americas, called the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP), are expected to start soon. The almost 500 trade advisors are granted security clearances so they can review U.S. trade text proposals, comment on texts to get changes, discuss the details with U.S. negotiators, and see proposed final deals long before the public. The result has been “trade” deals packed with an ever-expanding set of special-interest giveaways. Some, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, get so freighted up that they cannot gain majority support in Congress.
The Biden administration wants to create a new worker-centered trade policy that delivers benefits for working people and their communities and protects the environment. The Nixon-era corporate-loaded U.S. trade advisory system is a significant obstacle to President Biden’s excellent new vision for trade. The answer is to open the process so everyone who will live with the results can have the same access to draft texts of what will become binding policies that will affect their lives – as well as rebalancing representation on the advisory system.
84% of U.S. Trade Advisors Represent Business Interests – Most Represent Individual Corporations or Corporate Trade Associations
Of the 479 unique advisors in the system, 401 represent corporations, corporate trade associations, small and medium-sized enterprises, agribusiness promotion boards, and professional trade associations. Sixty-nine percent of the advisors represent large corporations and corporate trade associations. Many of the largest corporations have at least one person in the U.S. trade advisory system, including Amazon, Google, Walmart, Tyson Foods, Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.
Forty-two organizations have two or more representatives in the advisory system, including large corporations like Amazon, FedEx, Cargill, Johnson & Johnson, and Amway. Almost all organizations with multiple representatives in the advisory system represent business interests. (The exceptions are two standard-setting bodies, a state university, and five unions.)
Most of the 27 Trade Advisory Committees Are Dominated By Corporate Representatives As Well
The advisory system includes 27 committees, which are mainly organized by issue or sector, with 15 Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs) jointly administered by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and the Commerce Department, six Agricultural Technical Advisory Committees for Trade (ATACs) jointly administered by USTR and the Agriculture Department, and other subject-specific committees. The highest-level committee, the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN), which covers the full range of trade issues, is presidentially appointed and administered solely by USTR. USTR rechartered the ACTPN in August 2022 when its previous charter expired. The new charter includes terms promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. In March 2023, President Biden appointed 14 new members to the ACTPN, replacing the 15 members appointed during the previous administration. The new ACTPN members include representatives from unions, non-profits, academia and state government, as well as business. For the first time in the history of the committee, the majority of new ACTPN members do not represent commercial interests, and two out of the six business representatives come from small and medium-sized enterprises.
While the new ACTPN includes a more balanced distribution of representatives, the advisory system as a whole is still dominated by corporate interests. When most of the ITACs’ members were reappointed in April 2022, the membership was not made more balanced. Thus, the members of 25 of the other 26 non-ACTPN official U.S. trade advisory committees are predominantly, if not entirely, business representatives. At least one corporate representative serves on all but one of the 27 U.S. trade committees. Even on the Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee, 40% of the participants represent corporations or corporate trade associations. The only committee without a corporate representative is the Labor Advisory Committee, which consists entirely of representatives from organized labor. Almost all of the other committees are made up of mainly corporate representatives, with perhaps two or three non-corporate voices. Eight committees consist only of business representatives.1 A further five committees are fully staffed by business interests but for one representative.2
Non-corporate representatives outnumber corporate representatives on only three committees: the Intergovernmental Policy Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from state and local governments and intergovernmental associations, the Labor Advisory Committee, and the Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee.
1 Aerospace Equipment; Chemical, Pharmaceuticals, Health/Science Products and Services; Consumer Goods; Customs Matters and Trade Facilitation; Energy and Energy Services; Intellectual Property Rights; Steel; Textile and Clothing.
2 Grains, Feeds, Oilseeds and Planting Seeds; Automotive Equipment and Capital Goods, Critical Minerals and Nonferrous Metals, Digital Economy, Small, Minority and Women-Led Businesses.
Big Tech Is Positioned to Unduly Influence Current Trade Talks by Dominating "Digital Economy" and Other Committees
As the Biden administration heads into major “digital trade” talks with Asia-Pacific and Latin American nations, the U.S. government’s official Digital Economy Advisory Committee is entirely dominated by corporate interests, most of them representing Big Tech companies. Executives from firms like Amazon, Google, Oracle, and Qualcomm are included. Not a single person from a consumer, civil rights, or union background is included to represent the public interest in determining the U.S. government position on “digital trade.” Of the other seats, most are taken by corporate trade associations that defend the same interests, such as the Coalition of Services Industries and the Software Alliance. Indeed, of the 15 advisors that are associated with the tech sector, 13 represent corporate interests.
Agricultural and Food Producers are Significantly Overrepresented in the Trade Advisory System
While agriculture, food, and other related industries contribute around 5.4% to the U.S. gross domestic product; 40.4% of the government’s trade advisors represent agricultural or food manufacturing interests.
Most U.S. Trade Advisors Work for Organizations Located in Washington, D.C.
Over one-third of the 440 unique organizations in the trade advisory system are located in the Washington, D.C. area.
Twenty states are home to five or fewer organizations.Meanwhile, 11 states have no representation in the advisory system at all.
Two organizations are not located in the United States at all: the Eaton Corporation, which has a representative on the Energy and Energy Services Industry Trade Advisory Committee, is headquartered in Ireland, and ILF Consulting Engineers, which has a representative on the Trade Advisory Committee on Africa, is headquartered in Austria.
The entire dataset can be viewed, searched, and downloaded here:
To analyze the makeup of the U.S. trade advisory system, we mapped the names and organizations of the advisors that are appointed to the U.S. government’s official 27 trade advisory committees. Names of appointees and affiliation were taken from the website of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on Monday, March 13. We then cross-referenced membership on each committee using the Federal Advisory Committee Database for accuracy. We classified each advisor into one of 23 economic sectors based on the predominant activity of the organization that each specific advisor represents and into one of 13 types of organization classification (see below for full list of sectors and types). To determine the classification for each individual, we used information from organizations’ websites and press releases, local and state business records and filings, company profile reports from Bloomberg, and other sources. Individuals who serve on more than one committee were counted separately to determine organizations with multiple representatives in the advisory system. To determine the organizations with multiple representatives in the advisory system, we counted the participation of advisors in each committee, including for people representing one organization on more than one committee.