US seeks lower tariffs overseas, fewer duty-free imports

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U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer takes off his mask as he arrives at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on U.S. trade on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration plans to carry on with its confrontational approach to world trade, pressuring other countries to lower their tariffs on U.S. products and perhaps making it harder for imports to enter the United States duty free.

In testimony before Congress Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the administration would push for more change at the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based enforcer of global trade rules that the administration has accused of anti-U.S. bias.

“The WTO is a mess,” Lighthizer told the House Ways and Means Committee. “The WTO has failed America, and it’s failed the international trading system.’’

Under WTO rules, Lighthizer complained, other countries levy tariffs — import taxes — “far above’’ the tariffs the U.S. imposes.

Lighthizer’s comments suggest that “he wants to force others to lower their tariffs to our levels, and he will threaten to raise ours to theirs if they do not,” said William Reinsch, a former U.S. trade official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But Reinsch noted that the United States agreed to the existing tariffs in past negotiations.

If the Trump administration wants to change tariff rates it will face hard choices. To get other countries to lower their tariffs, it will have to negotiate — and make concessions. If the U.S. raises tariffs on its own instead, it will likely face retaliation from its trading partners.

“There is no free lunch,’’ Reinsch said.