Democrats blast administration’s NAFTA notice for a lack of ‘clarity,’ details Congressional Democrats are ripping the administration’s notice to Congress of its NAFTA renegotiation intentions as excessively vague and far short of President Trump’s campaign promises to retool the deal to favor American workers, demanding more specifics and calling for hearings before talks with Canada and Mexico begin.
The notice, delivered to Congress on May 18, “is a stark contrast with the aggressive promises he made to hardworking families during the campaign,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a May 18 statement. “For all his rhetoric, President Trump looks to be sorely disappointing American workers on trade.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the notice a “welcome first step” but said “the devil will be in the details. As I’ve always said, any new trade deals must prioritize American workers and help to get middle-class incomes and jobs going again. So far, this administration’s trade policy has been characterized by a lot of talk and no action — I hope this will change.” Former House Ways & Means chairman and ranking member Sander Levin (D-MI) called for the panel to “hold a series of hearings during this 90-day period before the negotiations begin so that Members have complete clarity on the negotiations and are actively involved in them.”
Ways & Means ranking member Richard Neal (D-MA) and Trade subcommittee ranking member Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), meanwhile, called the notice to Congress inconsistent with the Trump administration’s plan to “permanently reverse the dangerous trajectory” of U.S. trade policy. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer used that phrase during his swearing-in ceremony on Monday.
“We are writing to express our concern regarding the lack of clarity and specificity in your letter notifying Congress that the President intends to initiate negotiations with Canada and Mexico,” the two said in a May 18 letter to Lighthizer.
“Businesses, workers, farmers, and their representatives in Congress today face a great deal of uncertainty as to what the Administration’s intentions are with NAFTA. This notice provided an opportunity to finally provide some clarity.”
“Unfortunately, it fails to do that,” Neal and Pascrell contend.
Neal and Pascrell outlined a host of what they called shortfalls in the notice. They also faulted the administration’s approach to notifying Congress, claiming it “may not even meet the basic consultation requirements set out in section 105 of the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (TPA).” The notice, they wrote, says the administration intends to comply with the negotiating objectives laid out in TPA, which apply generally to all trade deals.
“But Congress expected much more specificity in the 90-day written notification,” the letter adds. “Under TPA, the notice must describe ‘the specific United States objectives’ for a particular negotiation with a particular country. We need to know what the President intends to achieve by reopening NAFTA and what specific changes the President will propose to achieve that purpose.”
Lighthizer told reporters on May 18 that the administration will advance formal negotiating objectives at least 30 days before NAFTA talks with Canada and Mexico can begin, in line with TPA.
According to that calendar, the administration would issue its negotiating objectives by July 17. Neal and Pascrell want details sooner, however. In their letter to Lighthizer, they cite a host of specifics, saying the notice does not suggest how government procurement, for example, might be handled in a retooled NAFTA.
On currency manipulation, the lawmakers say TPA leaves it to the administration to choose from a menu of options — “everything from fundamental reforms such as ‘enforceable rules’ to weak mechanisms that have already been tried and have already failed, such as ‘reporting, monitoring, and cooperative mechanisms.’ Which of these options does the Administration intend to pursue in a NAFTA renegotiation?” TPA, they add, is silent on the objective of rules of origin, which the administration has called a key NAFTA priority; Neal and Pascrell want to know more on that issue as well.
“And does the Administration intend to address growing concerns with how the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism affects the sovereign right to regulate in the public interest?” the letter asks. Neal and Pascrell say Trump’s rhetoric on NAFTA — which he has described as a “disaster” — cannot be “squared” with the notice. And, they note, administration officials have hinted that the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Trump withdrew from in January, and which many Democrats oppose — could serve as the starting point for NAFTA changes. Especially concerning to the two lawmakers is their fear that the administration “may not be fully committed to addressing the single most important reason that jobs have migrated to Mexico and weakened the bargaining position of U.S. workers: the Government of Mexico’s longstanding and utter failure to respect internationally-recognized worker rights.”
Even if Mexico agrees to the labor and environmental encapsulated in the “May 10” agreement reached between the Bush administration and Democratic lawmakers in 2007, many in Congress, Neal and Pascrell say, have no confidence that Mexico will adhere to those obligations.
They also questioned whether “this and future Administrations will fully enforce them. That must change before we are asked to support a renegotiated NAFTA.” Levin said the administration has avoided addressing Democrats’ concerns about Mexican labor issues. “Unfortunately, in meetings to date, the Administration has evaded questions about a core problem with NAFTA: a wholly deficient labor regime in Mexico that has kept wages low and workers without the rights to change the system,” he said in a statement. “Instead of being clear that Mexico will be required to change their laws and bring their practices into compliance with internationally recognized labor standards, they have stated that these are ‘sensitive’ issues.” As for the process the administration followed in notifying Congress, Neal and Pascrell say it was “clear from the start” that it was interested in working only with Republicans. The first draft of the notice was initially sent only to Republican leaders of key House and Senate committees.
The Republican leadership has long opposed major NAFTA changes, the lawmakers wrote to Lighthizer, “and now only reluctantly expresses a willingness to ‘improve’ and ‘modernize’ it. They in no way share your goal of ‘permanently reversing’ the trajectory of U.S. trade policy.” “We therefore hope you will work more closely with us as this process moves forward,” Neal and Pascrell conclude. Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement that the notice “is disappointingly