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Omnibus Trade Bills

The main enactments in U.S. trade law come in the periodic omnibus trade bills. Anyone reading these laws should be aware that some provisions in these laws make sense only in relation to earlier laws that they may amend, replace, or supercede, while other provisions may themselves have been altered or repealed by later laws. The best means of understanding the terms of current law is to read the consolidated, codified versions of the laws as found in the U.S. Code.

Omnibus trade bills include provisions dealing with a range of issues in trade policy. They will typically feature a grant of negotiating authority to the executive; amendments to the trade-remedy and reciprocity laws; provisions to authorize, renew, or reform trade preferences for developing countries; miscellanous tariff measures; and other material. Some will also approve and implement trade agreements.

Congress enacted seven such bills from 1962 through 2002, to wit:

The implementing legislation for trade agreements can sometimes serve like an omnibus trade bill. That was the case for the Trade Agreements Act of 1979 (the implementing legislation for the Tokyo Round), just as the implementing legislation for NAFTA included numerous provisions not directly related to that agreement. Similarly, the implementing bills for three free trade agreements approved in 2011 were used as vehicles for provisions to renew three expired trade programs.

A Note on the Codification of U.S. Trade Laws

Most laws in CENTRAL are presented in the codified versions found in the U.S. Code rather than as the separate laws enacted by Congress. The reason for this choice is that, in contrast to the practice in many other countries, in the United States laws tend to be built up over the decades through a process piecemeal accretion and amendment. Instead of periodically repealing all prior legislation on a topic and writing a wholly new law on trade, the Congress will instead make law primarily by tweaking or substantially rewriting the existing statutes.

The main trade laws of the United States thus remain the Tariff Act of 1930 and the Trade Act of 1974, but each has been so thoroughly amended in the ensuing decades that neither of them now bear much resemblance to how they appeared when first enacted. The texts in CENTRAL always note whether the provisions on a page are as enacted in a given statute or as sunsequently amended; readers should treat with caution any texts that fall in that former category. It can nonetheless be useful sometimes to examine a law as enacted in order to divine the legislative intent, as this can be important in matters of interpretation and adjudication (both domestically and internationally).

As an alternative to browsing the laws here or via the other CENTRAL navigation pages, one can also look up statutes in the House Ways and Means Committee's Overview and Compilation of U.S. Trade Statutes Part I (overview) or Part II (texts); both are very large PDF files. Note however that this print is merely an electronic version of a paper document. Unlike the material on CENTRAL, it does not provide hyperlinks to other laws or agreements that are cited in these laws. Note also that, to the extent possible, the laws presented in CENTRAL take note of any amendments made in the 112th Congress (2011-2012); the Ways and Means compilation and the on-line version of the U.S Code are current only through the end of 2010. 

See also the CENTRAL guides to the Trade Agreements of the United States and WTO Agreements and Instruments.

:: Trade Policy and the Constitution :: Customs and Import Regulation :: Controls for Security and Foreign Policy

The starting point for U.S. trade policymaking is the Constitution. The most important rule is that trade is a congressional prerogative, and that there is little that the executive can do in this field without congressional approval. See the Commerce Clause (Art. I §8 Cl.3) for this authority, as modified by the Treaty Power (Art. II §2 Cl.2) and the delegation of negotiating authority from Congress to the president. See also the terms of fast-track authority and the reading on The Legislative Process and the Fast Track.

The Constitution also ensures that the United States is a common market by establishing a common external tariff (Art. I §8 Cl.1) and prohibiting internal tariffs (Art. I §9 Cl.6), providing for a uniform rule of naturalization (Art. I §8 Cl.4), and prohibiting the states from taxing imports or exports (Art. I §10 Cl.2).   

Ratification of Amendment XVI in 1913, which authorized the imposition of income taxes, ensured that the Federal government would no longer be dependent upon tariff revenue for its existence. Significantly, the Constitution prevents the United States from imposing export taxes (Art. I §9 Cl.5). Other trade-related provisions in the Constitution deal with coinage (Art. I §8 clauses 5 and 6), postal services (Art. I §8 Cl.7), intellectual property rights (Art. I §8 Cl.8), and the authority of state governments to regulate trade in alcoholic beverages (Amendment XXI). 

See also the CENTRAL guide to Rules and Institutions.

The principal instrument of import regulation is the Harmonized Tariff Schedule.

 The Tariff Act of 1930 remains, as amended, the principal customs law. Its more important provisions are: 

Other laws governing ordinary imports include the following:

Imports are also subject to security laws. Chief among them are:

See also the CENTRAL guide to Market Access.

Import and export compliance extends well beyond ordinary customs laws. Matters are more complex for any transaction that involves certain partners or products that are subject to more stringent rules or restrictions for reasons of security and foreign policy.

The Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 is the original foreign policy trade law.

Some laws restrict or prohibit trade with specific partner countries for reasons of foreign policy. See for example the laws affecting trade with Cuba and Iran.

Other laws provide establish special requirements for trade in, and especially exports of, militarily critical goods or other sensitive items. These include the Export Administration Act of 1979, the Export Administration Regulations (PDF), the control of arms exports and imports, and specific areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, chemical and biological weapons, and missiles

Still other laws relate to partners as well as products, such as the prohibition on arms exports to supporters of terrorism.

Some compliance laws are intended to prevent discrimination. These include the International Religious Freedom Act, the anti-boycott law, and a law concerning anti-discrimination in U.S. arms sales.

Other laws either grant or seek to reign in the president's powers to restrict trade for reasons of foreign policy. These include the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and, somewhat conversely, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act.

For links to specific sections in these laws, and for additional laws, see the CENTRAL guide to Security, Sanctions, and Compliance.

:: Trade-Remedy and Reciprocity Laws :: Preferences and Trade Agreements :: Other Compliance Laws

The U.S. trade-remedy laws still in effect are, in roughly descending order of importance, as follows:

The "reciprocity" laws (within the U.S. meaning of that term) include the following:

Some other statutes are similar to the trade-remedy laws:

See also the CENTRAL guide to Disputes and Trade-Remedy Laws.

Several programs provide preferential access to the U.S. market for certain goods imported from developing countries. The least comprehensive of these programs is the Generalized System of Preferences, which has wide country coverage but narrow product coverage. Other programs that have narrower country coverage but much wider product coverage include the following:

Preferential trade programs have been giving way over the past generation to free trade agreements (FTAs). FTAs differ from preferential programs by being permanent, legally binding, and reciprocal.

The United States has FTAs either in place or pending implementation with eighteen partners. CENTRAL includes the texts of the FTA with Israel and the North American FTA (NAFTA).

See the CENTRAL guide to Trade Agreements of the United States for links to the texts and other documents associated with the remaining FTAs.


Beyond security and foreign policy, there are three other major grounds on which import- and export-compliance laws are based.

Perhaps the most significant of these laws concern human health and safety, as provided under sanitary and phytosanitary laws as well as related regulations of food and drug imports. These include the Consumer Products Safety Act and the laws governing the import and export of foods and drugs, imports of prescription drugs, exports of unapproved drugs and devices, trade in hazardous products, and products containing lead, as well as the foreign supplier verification program

Some laws place restrictions on trade in certain products that are associated with human rights violations. These include the Clean Diamond Act and the conflict minerals provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act.

Compliance laws also deal with the environment and conservation. See especially the Lacey Act, which (as amended) prohibits trade in protected species and products.

These and related laws may be reached through the CENTRAL guide to Security, Sanctions, and Compliance