International Trade:

Prior Updates of the Trade Advisory System Offer Insights for Current Review

GAO-09-842T: Published: Jul 21, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 21, 2009.

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This testimony provides a summary of key findings from the comprehensive report on the trade advisory system that we provided to the Congress in 2002, as well as from our more recent report in 2007 on the Congressional and private sector consultations under Trade Promotion Authority. In particular, this testimony highlights our recommendations in three key areas--committee consultations, logistics, and overall system structure--as well as the changes that have been made by the U.S. agencies since those reports were published.

Our 2002 survey of trade advisory committee members found high levels of satisfaction with many aspects of committee operations and effectiveness, yet more than a quarter of respondents indicated that the system had not realized its potential to contribute to U.S. trade policy. In particular, we received comments about the timeliness, quality, and accountability of consultations. For example, the law requires the executive branch to inform committees of "significant departures" from committee advice. However, many committee members reported that agency officials informed committees less than half of the time when their agencies pursued strategies that differed from committee input. In 2002, we found that slow administrative procedures disrupted committee operations, and the resources devoted to committee management were out of step with required tasks. In several instances, for example, committees ceased to meet and thus could not provide advice, in part because the agencies had not appointed members. However, the length of time required to obtain a security clearance contributed to delays in member appointment. To address these concerns, we recommended the agencies upgrade system management; and in response, they began to grant new advisors interim security clearances so that they could actively participate in the committee while the full clearance is conducted. Despite these actions, however, trade advisory committee chairs we contacted in 2007 told us certain logistics such as delays in rechartering committees and appointment of members still made it difficult for some committees to function effectively. We found several committees had not been able to meet for periods of time, either because agencies allowed their charters to lapse or had not started the process of soliciting and appointing members soon enough to ensure committees could meet once they were rechartered. The Labor Advisory Committee, for example, did not meet for over 2 years from September 2003 until November 2005 due in part to delays in the member appointment process. These types of process delays further reduced a committee's ability to give timely, official advice before the committee was terminated, and the rechartering process had to begin again. This was particularly true in the case of the Labor Advisory Committee, which, at the time of our 2007 report, still had a 2-year charter. In addition to the need to improve certain committee logistics, we also found that representation of stakeholders is a key component of the trade advisory committee system that warrants consideration in any review of the system. In particular, as the U.S. economy and trade policy have shifted, the trade advisory committee system has needed adjustments to remain in alignment with them, including both a revision of committee coverage as well as committee composition.

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