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Kamala Harris – Where Biden’s Vice President Pick Stands on Key Trade and Foreign Policy Issues

On Tuesday, August 11, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced that he has selected Senator Kamala Devi Harris (D-California) as his vice presidential running mate.  Since joining the U.S. Congress in 2016, Harris has in some instances served as a bridge between progressive and moderate Democratic positions and policies.  However, Harris is typically characterized as a liberal, progressive Democrat.  She has made immigration, equal pay and abortion rights core planks of her policy proposals.  Her current congressional committee assignments in the 116th Congress include the Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Intelligence and Budget.

A native of California, she was born in Oakland to immigrant parents from India (mother) and Jamaica (father).  Prior to Congress, Harris, a lawyer, served as Attorney General of the State of California (2011-2017).  She graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and earned a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

Early in her Washington, D.C., career, Harris was confronted with taking a public position on trade.  During her 2016 Senate campaign, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was one of the hottest political issues.  She initially declined to take a firm stance on it, saying in 2015:  “We want to strike a balance that allows America’s economy to prosper, and that’s going to be about our workers and our businesses.”  After Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-California), a staunch TPP critic, challenged Harris for the Senate seat in California’s “top two” primary process, Harris came out in opposition to the trade pact, stating it did not adequately protect U.S. workers or the environment, citing in particular concerns with infringement on California’s environmental laws.

With respect to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Harris was among a handful of Senators that opposed the trade pact even after it was modified to include additional labor and environmental enforcement provisions following negotiations between House Democrats and the Trump Administration.  Biden voiced support for congressional approval of the deal that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  In voting against the USMCA, Harris stated the agreement would “set the [environmental] standards for decades, and I believe Californians and all Americans deserve better and more immediate action. For these reasons, I oppose this deal.”

During her 2019 presidential campaign, Harris sought to differentiate herself as a non-protectionist Democrat, saying, “We need to export American products, not American jobs.  And to do that, we have to have a meaningful trade policy.”  Harris has also said that the Trump Administration’s “trade taxes” (or tariffs) are taking $1.4 billion “out of working people’s pockets every month.”

She has criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s proclivity to announce trade policy via Twitter.  In a 2019 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Harris said of U.S. trade policy, “I believe very strongly that we have to have policies that understand that, as it relates to the issue of trade, as it relates to the issue of various countries, including China, . . .  that we have to supply and equip the American worker with the skills and the resources that they need to thrive, not only survive, but thrive.”  Regarding Climate Change, Harris said, “[W]e need to do a better job in terms of thinking about the priorities that should be more apparent now perhaps than they were there, which are issues like climate, the climate crisis, and what we need to do to build into these trade agreements.” 

Harris was an early supporter of the progressive’s “Green New Deal,” which seeks to reduce carbon emissions and create jobs by spending more on renewable energy.  After the Senate voted down Senator Edward Markey’s (D-Massachusetts) Green New Deal bill in March 2019, Harris said, “Climate change is an existential threat, and confronting it requires bold action.  . . .  Combatting this crisis first requires the Republican majority to stop denying science and finally admit that climate change is real and humans are the dominant cause.”  In July 2020, Harris introduced the Environmental Justice for All Act, companion legislation to a measure introduced earlier in the House of by Congressmen Donald McEachin (D-Virginia) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona).  The bill would give communities of color tools to address environmental disparities, including by engaging government decision-making processes, such as federal permitting decisions for infrastructure projects, the creation of climate resiliency plans, and the transition to clean energy.  During the 115th Congress, Harris was a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Given her Climate Change platform and California origins, Harris will likely continue to support policies that favor electric cars over gas-powered cars in the United States.  She has opposed the Trump Administration’s efforts to reverse the Obama-era fuel efficiency standards.  During a 2019 Town Hall, Harris also stated she would push to have basically zero-emission vehicles only by 2045, however her climate plan as a then-presidential contender called requiring 100% of vehicles be zero-emission as soon as 2035.

Harris has said of the People’s Republic of China (China), “They steal our products, including our intellectual property. They dump substandard products into our economy. They need to be held accountable.”  However, she opposes unilateral action against China, expressing a preference for working with allies to address issues with China, including “the threat that it presents to our economy, the threat it presents to American workers and American industries.”  She has also previously acknowledged China could possibly help address climate change concerns and North Korea.  Despite have connections to India, Harris has not been vocal on the ongoing trade talks or trade concerns with respect to that country.

In September 2019, Harris joined ten other Democratic Senators in sending a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer urging him against going forward with any trade negotiations with Brazil.  The Senators expressed environmental concerns, saying Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro needs to enforce fully his country’s environmental laws and regulations to protect the Amazon from continued illegal deforestation.  The Senators also urged Ambassador Lighthizer to resolve the ongoing trade war with China, observing disrupted global trade patterns have driven China to rely increasingly on Brazil for beef and soybeans, which has in turn resulted in Brazil clearing more of the Amazon forest for agriculture.

Notably, Harris has broken with progressive Democrats with respect to their increased criticism of the Israeli Government.  Married to Douglas Emhoff, a Jewish attorney who at previously served as partner-in-charge at Venable LLP’s Los Angeles office and currently at DLA Piper in Los Angeles, Harris takes a moderate position and supports a two-state solution in Israel and Israel’s “right to defend itself” from Hamas attacks from Gaza.  She has also expressed support for the United States rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement, if the United States can verify Iran is complying with the strict requirements detailed in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

As a politician and former prosecutor, Harris will likely also push to tighten regulations.  In her words, “In California, we have some of the strongest consumer protection laws in the country. While it is easy to conceive of innovation and regulation as mutually exclusive, California is proof that we can do both. We can innovate responsibly.”  Ultimately, as his running mate, Harris will advocate Joe Biden’s policies and platforms.  However, her positions can help influence Biden’s policies, including on trade and foreign policy matters, during the campaign and beyond.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 225

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About this Author

Stacy Swanson, Public Policy Specialist, Squire Patton Boggs Law Firm
Public Policy Specialist

Stacy Swanson helps sovereign governments successfully navigate Washington and understand United States Government policy. She regularly provides clients with strategies which effectively leverage existing relationships to advocate policy objectives before the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government. 

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