Ratifying USMCA the Only Responsible Option at this Point
The fate of free trade in North America is hanging in the balance.
That sentiment would have been true 18 months ago when negotiations of NAFTA began. It would have been true six months later when the parties failed to meet their self-imposed first deadline. It would have been true last October when it appeared the U.S. was prepared to sign a bilateral deal with Mexico and exclude Canada. And it’s still true today as the agreement gets lost in the fracas of politicking in Washington.
The impending release of the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) report, which provides members of Congress with in-depth analysis of the potential economic impact of the proposed United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA), may very well have minimal impact in swaying Congressional opponents of the deal.
According to a recent report in Politico, the ITC’s analysis is likely to suggest the USMCA will have a negligible impact to U.S. GDP, which won’t serve as a bulwark against complaints by House Democrats that the agreement is short on enforcement mechanisms for its labor provisions. If that weren’t threatening enough, Ottawa has now suggested it may not ratify the USMCA unless Washington removes the Section 232 tariffs on aluminum and steel imports.
Yet, regardless of the ongoing warfare on Capitol Hill and the potentially uninspiring data in the ITC report, the reality is that at this point in time the ratification of the USMCA is the best possible option. The handful of alternatives available will only serve to further destabilize confidence in and certainty around the future of trade within North America.
Democrats have been demanding stronger enforcement of the USMCA’s labor provisions. These demands are in keeping with the party’s longstanding complaint that NAFTA offered Mexico’s low-wage, low-regulation economy a leg up on attracting manufacturers. While the USMCA’s new labor provisions are intended to address this, Democrats argue the agreement lacks teeth in ensuring Mexico holds up to its end of the agreement.
However, creating an enforcement mechanism means going back to the negotiating table, something none of the parties are interested in doing, particularly since it took a great deal of intense negotiation over more than a year to come up with the agreement that’s currently on the table. It’s quite likely Canada and Mexico will demand significant concessions in exchange for a stronger enforcement mechanism, which may negate some of the agreement’s other benefits.
The Trump card
Whether or not the agreement is negotiated is, in some ways, irrelevant. U.S. President Donald Trump has already threatened that if Democrats attempt to quash the USMCA – either before or after a renegotiation of its enforcement provisions – Washington will simply pull the U.S. out of NAFTA, pitting the administration against Congress in a legal battle over trade-agreement decision making that is certain to become a wedge issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. The president recently reiterated his threat to withdraw from NAFTA during a recent interview on the Fox Business Network.
The result would be a return to a trade environment of uncertainty that would surely result in reduced cross-border investment that would adversely impact the economies of all three USMCA countries and potentially stymie Washington’s efforts to negotiate bilateral trade deals with Japan, the European Union and the United Kingdom – all important trade partners.
Forget the whole thing
If the threat to withdraw from NAFTA is simply bluster on the part of the President and ratification of the USMCA ends up locked in a Congressional stalemate, the other alternative is to simply do away with the renegotiated agreement and revert back to the original NAFTA deal. While that would certainly be a viable – and minimally disruptive alternative – the truth is that the USMCA made substantial gains in modernizing free trade in North America, addressing critical issues such as regulatory harmonization, the digital economy and intellectual property protection and host of other aspects that are not addressed in NAFTA. Whether these updates result in tangible gains to GDP and/or employment only time will tell. But at the very least they serve to incentivize those engaged in cross-border trade to continue doing so and perhaps even broaden the scope of their activity. Given that North American trade represents more than a trillion dollars annually, it’s critical to – at the very least – maintain the gains already made over the past 25 years. The USMCA does exactly that and more.
It took very seasoned negotiators and trade experts more than a year of intense talks to arrive at the agreement that’s currently on the table, including the chapters that serve to bring free trade into the 21st century in a fair and equitable manner. It would be irresponsible to do away with these gainful additions in the name of partisanship, and voters would presumably hold their elected representatives to account should they choose to do so.
The best course of action
The responsible and most advantageous thing for Congress to do at this point would be to ratify the USMCA. That’s the opinion of approximately 400 businesses and business associations that are now part of the USMCA Coalition, a collective of like-minded enterprises that believe in the importance of free trade to the U.S. economy and to U.S. jobs, and of which Livingston International is a member.
Given the impressive gains made by the USMCA in fostering an environment of fair and free trade across the continent, and the risks associated with returning to the negotiating table and/or drawing out the ratification of the agreement into the political fray of the 2020 election campaign, it is critical that lawmakers on Capitol Hill make ratification of the new deal a key priority in the coming months.
Failing to do so would put into peril the advantages of free trade on which so many jobs rely, and would serve to reinforce the perception that lawmakers are all too eager to put partisanship ahead of effective representation.
Candace Sider is vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs North America at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations.