WASHINGTON—U.S. President Donald Trump’s point man on the North American Free Trade Agreement is expressing frustration at the go-slow attitude of American lawmakers.
Wilbur Ross says their foot-dragging in launching the renegotiating process is detrimental to the United States.
Ross says the U.S. Congress has been slow on two fronts: in confirming Trump’s new trade czar, and in approving the formal notice that would launch the 90-day process before negotiations can start.
“It’s been frustratingly slow,” the commerce secretary said in an interview April 9 with Fox. “They’ve been very, very slow on completing the hearings and voting on our new U.S. trade representative Bob Lighthizer. That’s been not helpful.”
He said he had also hoped to get the formal 90-day notice done before the two-week Easter break. It didn’t happen.
One reason is a misalignment of priorities. For Trump, updating NAFTA is a major campaign promise—but for many lawmakers, who by law must be consulted in negotiations, and who eventually would vote on the deal, NAFTA was neither a campaign promise nor a top priority.
Even the top lawmaker on trade-related files, the head of the Senate finance committee, Orrin Hatch, recently told reporters his main focus at that moment was getting Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch confirmed. The judge is now confirmed, but there’s another priority for Hatch, and for Congress, which likely supersedes NAFTA: comprehensive tax reform.
The administration still doesn’t have a trade czar to deal with Congress.
Lighthizer’s confirmation is turning into a bargaining chip. Because Lighthizer might need a congressional waiver to join the U.S. government, given past legal work for foreign countries, Democrats want something in return. In exchange for confirming the trade czar, some are demanding coal-miner pension guarantees in an upcoming fiscal bill.
The longer the delay, the harder it might become to close a NAFTA deal.
That’s because each of the three countries will enter election mode, one after the other: Mexicans vote in just over a year; then the new Mexican government doesn’t get sworn in for another five months. By that point, American lawmakers will be distracted by their own midterm elections in late-2018. Then Canada has its federal election a year later.
Ross has expressed a desire to get the deal done within a year.
“Bad trade deals shouldn’t be allowed to sit,” he added Sunday. “The longer they sit there the more they are to our disadvantage. So it’s quite unfortunate that the way Congress has been working has been to slow-walk these activities.”
Meanwhile, a prominent adviser to the Canadian government is preaching patience. In an interview last week with The Canadian Press, former prime minister Brian Mulroney said the Trudeau government has no need to hurry.
Mulroney is good friends with Ross.
“I think what we should do, what the government should do, is wait,” Mulroney said.
“Until we hear from them (the Americans) formally. See what they want. And, meanwhile, we should be preparing what we want.”