Trade legislation historically was an area of bipartisan agreement. For the last twenty years or so, it has been increasingly difficult to find bipartisan support for trade agreements and implementing legislation. If the consultation process between the Trump Administration and House Democrats results in a set of modifications to the USMCA that garner larger Democratic support, we may be seeing a roadmap for greater bipartisan efforts in the trade arena going forward.
The Democrats have highlighted concerns in four areas – enforcement, labor, environment and pharmaceuticals. Labor (as reflected in the position of the AFL-CIO and its member unions) has felt that prior trade agreements, including NAFTA, resulted in situations where workers have not benefited and have in fact seen economic opportunities shrink. The shrinkage was a result of jobs moving off-shore, with imports into the U.S. from such off-shored facilities ramping up and reducing U.S. employment. Indeed, the possibility of moving to Mexico has been viewed by labor as a constant threat applied by management in many companies to reduce income expectations of workers. NAFTA has not been viewed by labor as helping improve significantly working conditions in Mexico nor the problems of labor rights in Mexico. How to achieve meaningful improvements has been a major concern of labor and many Democrats. For labor, the result of past trade agreements has been a documented stagnation of wages and reduced employment in manufacturing. The concern with North American neighbors has been reinforced by the large and growing trade deficit with Mexico in particular. For labor, agreements that don’t result in actual improvements in the opportunities for workers as well as the companies are simply unacceptable. A race to the bottom on worker rights and environmental protections is not acceptable to labor or to environmental groups.
The Trump Administration introduced certain provisions into the USMCA that were intended to address certain Administration concerns over the trade deficit with our neighbors. The Administration also elevated labor and environment from side letters to integral chapters of the Agreement, an important improvement over NAFTA. While recognizing improvements over prior agreements, Democrats have signaled that some modifications are critical for their support.
USTR Lighthizer and his team have been involved in negotiations with Democratic House members over a number of months. While the specifics of the proposals and counter-proposals are not public, press accounts indicate that resolution of Democratic concerns/demands could be close. Moreover, the Mexican government has been visited by Congressional Democrats, and the President of Mexico has forwarded communications on his commitment to fulfilling Mexico’s obligations under the USMCA labor chapter.
Speaker Pelosi stated at her weekly press conference this past week that “I do believe that if we can get this to the place it needs to be which is imminent, that this can be a template for future trade agreements, a good template.” House members involved in the negotiations agree negotiations are progressing, but have indicated a deal is not yet imminent. https://thehill.com/policy/finance/trade/470580-usmca-deal-close-but-not-imminent-democrats-say. The next few weeks will likely indicate whether agreement can be reached on the four topics being negotiated.
Obviously, the vast majority of the USMCA will not be disturbed by any agreement between the Trump Administration and House Democrats. And any modifications to the agreement or acceptance of additional side agreements, etc., obviously need to be agreed to by Mexico and Canada and result in implementing legislation that is approved by Congress. But without agreement between the Administration and the House Democrats, USMCA implementing legislation will not be taken up by Congress. Thus, agreement between the Administration and House Democrats in the next few weeks is priority number one for the USMCA moving forward.
For those with an active interest in the USMCA and how the agreement, before modifications, compares to the NAFTA or to the Trans Pacific Partnership (as signed by the U.S., but before the U.S. withdrew), I include below side-by-side documents of several chapters (14 on investment, 20 on intellectual property, 23 on labor, 24 on environment, 31 on dispute settlement) and one side letter (on biologics). The side-by-side documents were generated by my firm prior to my retirement. Presumably modifications to the agreements or additional side letters, etc. that are agreed to by the Administration with the House Democrats will key off of the enclosed chapters and side letter.