In his recent State of the Union address, U.S. President Donald Trump described the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a “historic trade blunder” and a “catastrophe”. He recounted recent meetings with unemployed Rust Belt workers who have been on the front lines of America’s deindustrialization, imploring Congress to rid America of the NAFTA burden by passing the recently signed United States-Mexico-Canada agreement into law.
Ratification of the agreement, however, is far from certain, and not just because the government is divided along party lines. While it’s true Democrats are leveraging their newfound House majority power to insist on enhancements to the USCMA, there are other factors at play that could stymie the President’s efforts to ratify the trade deal, not least of which is the ongoing row over funding of a border wall, which forced the longest government shutdown in history.
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the USMCA are the labor provisions outlined in Chapter 23 of the new agreement. The USMA demands that all imports, but particularly automobiles, be manufactured using laborers that have the right to collective bargaining and representation by independent unions. Those labor provisions are critical as much of the impetus behind renegotiating NAFTA was the establishment of a more balanced labor environment between the U.S. and Mexico to minimize the flight of U.S. manufacturers to Mexico where labor wages are only a fraction of those in the U.S. Democrats have noted the Chapter 23 provisions lack enforceability and are unlikely to result in tangible reforms.
The challenge is that putting in place more robust enforcement provisions would require reopening negotiations with Mexico. The governing party in Mexico today is not the same as the one that had negotiated and signed the USMCA. In fact, the conclusion of the negotiations was hastened specifically to ensure the agreement could be signed by then Mexican Prime Minister Enrique Peña Nieto as incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was less inclined to expend his political capital on the new trade deal. Since then, López Obrador’s administration has signalled its support for the USMCA but also that it has no desire to reopen negotiations.
Automotive Content Requirements
Democrats’ demands for stronger labor provision aren’t the only objection to the changes imposed on automotive trade. Republicans have also taken issue with the changes, noting the content requirements are too onerous and against the spirit of open trade.
The content provisions, which require automobiles to have 75% North American content and which prescribe minimums for the use of U.S. steel and aluminum, were the most hotly contested changes in the agreement. While both Canada and Mexico were keen to keep automotive content requirements fairly low and may be receptive to seeing some the changes clawed back, there’s likely little political appetite to reopen negotiations over an issue that was so divisive and which complicated the negotiations from beginning to end.
Section 232 Tariffs on Steel & Aluminum
One of the issues the USMCA agreement failed to address was that of the ongoing steel and aluminum tariffs the Trump administration has imposed on Canada and Mexico, and the associated countermeasures with which each of those countries reciprocated.
Now, Republicans such as Senator Patrick Toomey and Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, are echoing the concerns of many U.S. businesses about the impact of the tariffs and stressing their support for the USMCA will be contingent on the tariffs’ repeal. The President, however, has dug in his heels and refused to do away with the tariffs, suggesting instead that he will simply withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA if Congress refuses to ratify the USMCA.
Politco Pro recently reported that a group of House Democrats have suggested they cannot support the USMCA if it maintains its current provisions over pharmaceutical intellectual property.
The USMCA increased the period for which drug makers can maintain a patent on high-cost biologics from eight years to 10 years. Democrats fear this will prolong what they see as a period of monopoly for drug makers, enabling them to keep costs high for life-saving drugs.
The USMCA was an improvement over the 1993 NAFTA agreement in terms of environmental protections. There is specific language about the protection of marine environment and reduction of marine litter and ship pollution, as well as recognition of fishing issues, air quality and the ozone layer. Furthermore, the removal of NAFTA Chapter 11 eliminated the ability for private corporations to sue governments and seek damages for the implementation of environmental laws and regulations that impeded their profits.
But environmental groups and many House Democrats aren’t happy the USMCA excludes mention of climate change and say that – much like the automotive labor provisions – the environment rules lack enforceability and they want to see more definitive language to ensure profit won’t supersede protection.
The aforementioned concerns are only those that have emerged from the text of the agreement itself. Congress has not yet seen the International Trade Commission’s report (the due date for which has been extended to April 19 due to the government shutdown), which will outline the economic impact of the agreement and which could conceivably raise a number of other unforeseen apprehensions.
Only time will tell precisely what sorts of volleys the parties will exchange over the course of the USMCA’s ratification process. What’s certain, however, is that the passing of the USMCA legislation won’t be easy and bi-partisan support may require concessions on the part of an administration that has hitherto been able to govern unimpeded on the trade file.