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Monday, February 7, 2011

Trade Law: An Introduction to Selected International Agreements and U.S. Laws

Emily C. Barbour
Legislative Attorney

U.S. trade obligations derive from international trade agreements, including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the other World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, and additional bilateral and regional trade agreements, as well as domestic laws intended to implement those agreements or effectuate U.S. trade policy goals. This report provides an overview of both sources of U.S. trade obligations, focusing on a select group of agreements, provisions, and statutes that are most commonly implicated by U.S. trade interests and policy.

Historically, parties to international trade agreements were obligated to reduce two kinds of trade barriers: tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers. Whereas the former may hinder an imported product’s ability to compete in a foreign market by imposing an additional cost on the product’s entry into the market, the latter has the potential to bar an import from entering that market altogether by, for example, restricting the number of such imports that can enter the market or imposing prohibitively strict packaging and labeling requirements. Consequently, at their most basic, international trade agreements obligate their parties to convert at least some of their nontariff trade barriers into tariffs, set a ceiling on the tariff rates for particular products, and then progressively reduce those rates over time. In addition, international trade agreements have increasingly broadened their scope to target domestic policies that appear to operate as unfair trade practices and to establish elaborate trade dispute settlement mechanisms. As illustrated in this report, the typical international trade agreement today disciplines its parties’ use of tariffs and trade barriers, authorizes its parties to use discriminatory trade measures to remedy certain unfair trade practices, and establishes a dispute settlement body.

Domestic trade laws, meanwhile, can broadly be classified as laws (1) authorizing trade remedies, including remedies for violations of trade agreements, countervailing duties for subsidized imports, and antidumping duties for imports sold at less than their normal value, (2) setting domestic tariff rates and providing special duty-free or preferential tariff treatment for certain products, and (3) authorizing the imposition of trade sanctions to protect U.S. security or achieve other policy goals. In addition to describing these domestic laws, this report summarizes the constitutional authorities of Congress and the executive branch over international trade. Finally, the report identifies many of the federal agencies and entities charged with overseeing the development of new trade agreements and the administration and enforcement of federal trade laws. Among the federal agencies and entities discussed are the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the International Trade Administration (ITA), the International Trade Commission (ITC), the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the United States Court of International Trade (CIT).

This report is not intended as a comprehensive review of trade law. It is an introductory overview of the legal framework governing trade-related measures. The agreements and laws selected for discussion are those most commonly implicated by U.S. trade interests, but there are U.S. trade obligations beyond those reviewed in this report.

Date of Report: January 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 71
Order Number: R41306
Price: $29.95

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