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USTR Says It Will Limit WTO Notification

USTR to limit WTO notice to state agency rules – not pending legislation

October 22, 2008

A senior U.S. trade negotiator told state officials today that his office will modify its procedures to notify the World Trade Organization (WTO) about state legislation that regulates technical barriers to trade. Jeff Weiss, Director for Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) in the Office of U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), made these remarks in a conference call with state officials.

State concerns. Weiss responded to concerns raised by state legislators that they had personally received communiqués from the Chinese government in Bejing that they considered alarming and inappropriate. For example, Virginia Lyons, who chairs Vermont’s Senate Natural Resources Committee, received an official Chinese critique just a few days after introducing a bill on electronic waste. The Chinese memo stated that the bill violated the WTO’s TBT Agreement in several respects and recommended deletions or amendments. China’s communication was sent to Lyons’ home address. 

Several people on the call said it is “unnerving” to get personal notice that your bill could trigger a WTO trade dispute.

WTO obligations to notify. China was responding to notices of state legislation sent by the U.S. Department of Commerce to the WTO Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland. Mr. Weiss explained that the TBT Agreement requires such notice under two conditions when a government (at any level) proposes to regulate trade in goods: (1) when the proposal is not based on international standards and (2) the proposal could have a significant impact on trade with even one country. “The bar is low,” said Mr. Weiss. He explained that notice to the WTO is designed to back up trade rules that require regulations to be “not more trade restrictive than necessary” and to be based on relevant international standards.

Changes in U.S. notices to the WTO. After observing that the Commerce Department had not been sending the WTO notice of pending bills in Congress, Mr. Weiss said that sending notice of state bills in Vermont and Maryland had been “inadvertent.” In the future, he said that his office at USTR would screen out all notices of proposed legislation. This would limit notices to agency rulemaking – both state and federal – after legislation has been adopted. Mr. Weiss said that at the agency level, “we try to notify everything … to be as transparent as possible. We want to see other countries become transparent.”

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