No firm dead­line has been set for NAFTA over­haul

Top trade ne­go­tia­tor wants ‘trans­for­ma­tive’ deal


Pres­i­dent Trump’s top trade ne­go­tia­tor out­lined a tougher line on en­forc­ing U.S. trade deals and told a Capi­tol Hill hear­ing that the new U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion has no self-im­posed dead­line for over­haul­ing NAFTA with Canada and Mex­ico.

The Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee hear­ing at­tracted a stand­ing-room-only crowd as U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Lighthizer gave his first pub­lic tes­ti­mony on Mr. Trump’s promised rad­i­cal shift in U.S. trade pol­icy, a cen­tral plank of Mr. Trump’s win­ning pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2016.

Af­ter nearly can­cel­ing the 1994 North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment al­to­gether, Mr. Trump in April agreed in­stead to new talks with Mex­ico and Canada. Mr. Trump con­tends that NAFTA has cost the U.S. thou­sands of jobs. Mr. Lighthizer sig­naled the ad­min­is­tra­tion will take its time get­ting a new agree­ment and told law­mak­ers he hopes the re­vised ac­cord will serve as a “model” for bi­lat­eral trade deals with other na­tions in the fu­ture.

Mr. Lighthizer said the ad­min­is­tra­tion al­ready re­ceived more than 12,000 com­ments and that there will be a se­ries of pub­lic hear­ings start­ing on June 27, with plans to pub­lish a de­tailed set of ob­jec­tives on July 17.

“I’m very fo­cused on the fact that when we bring some­thing back, it has to pass, and that there’s al­most no mar­gin for er­ror,” Mr. Lighthizer said.

Mr. Lighthizer said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would fo­cus on bi­lat­eral trade deals with other na­tions af­ter rene­go­ti­at­ing NAFTA.

“The only dead­line we have is that we’re go­ing to get a good agree­ment, one that is trans­for­ma­tive and a very high-stan­dard agree­ment,” he said.

Mr. Lighthizer, a well-known trade at­tor­ney who served in the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, pre­sented four key trade pol­icy goals — rene­go­ti­at­ing NAFTA, strength­en­ing en­force­ment of ex­ist­ing trade deals, open­ing mar­kets to U.S. ex­ports and re­duc­ing the trade deficit. Mr. Lighthizer is likely to play a key role in Mr. Trump’s eco­nomic agenda, a role re­flected in the 6 per­cent bud­get in­crease Mr. Trump has pro­posed for the trade of­fice in his fis­cal 2018 bud­get.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, Mr. Lighthizer ap­peared agree­able and sym­pa­thetic to sen­a­tors’ con­cerns with NAFTA, which in­cluded the need to ac­count for the digital econ­omy and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights and the need to pro­tect U.S. agri­cul­tural mar­kets. Ac­knowl­edg­ing that pro­vi­sions in NAFTA for on­line in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty pro­tec­tions and the digital econ­omy were lack­ing, Mr. Lighthizer promised to press those is­sues in the up­com­ing talks.

Mr. Lighthizer also promised to ad­dress cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion, a prime con­cern of Mr. Trump, in the NAFTA talks. Al­though he said nei­ther Mex­ico nor Canada is suspected of ma­nip­u­lat­ing their cur­rency to boost ex­ports, Mr. Lighthizer said a pro­vi­sion on cur­rency in the over­hauled NAFTA could es­tab­lish a “model” agree­ment for ne­go­ti­a­tions with coun­tries that do.

He also promised to in­ves­ti­gate Cana­dian dairy in­dus­try prac­tices and Mex­i­can steel in­dus­try re­quire­ments that may be harm­ing U.S. farm­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers.

Though the at­mos­phere re­mained friendly dur­ing the hear­ing, Sen. Ron Wy­den, Ore­gon Demo­crat, cast doubt on the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s abil­ity to reach a trade deal, cit­ing a lack of trans­parency as a “sure way” to ruin its trade agenda.

“The Com­merce De­part­ment seems to be ne­go­ti­at­ing what seems to be the most opaque trade ne­go­ti­a­tion ever with the Chi­nese,” Mr. Wy­den said. “I have some real doubts the ad­min­is­tra­tion will be able to ham­mer out a high-stan­dard over­haul of NAFTA.”

Mr. Trump on the cam­paign trail re­peat­edly promised to tar­get China, which an­nu­ally runs the big­gest bi­lat­eral trade sur­pluses with the U.S. But he has backed off on a cam­paign pledge to cen­sure Bei­jing as a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor, cit­ing what he said was the need for China’s co­op­er­a­tion in con­tain­ing North Korea.

But sev­eral law­mak­ers said they re­mained con­cerned about China be­cause of the state ma­nip­u­la­tion of the econ­omy and prac­tices that harm U.S. tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies. Mr. Lighthizer promised to ad­dress them in up­com­ing trade ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Since tak­ing of­fice, Mr. Trump has aban­doned the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal with a dozen Pa­cific Rim na­tions and vowed to rene­go­ti­ate — or even abol­ish — NAFTA. The U.S. Com­merce De­part­ment under Mr. Trump in­sti­tuted a 20 per­cent tar­iff on Cana­dian soft­wood lum­ber in April, bring­ing a strong protest from Ot­tawa.

A num­ber of sen­a­tors urged Mr. Lighthizer to avoid lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tions on NAFTA, which they warned could cast a cloud over the in­vest­ment plans of Amer­i­can busi­nesses and farm­ers.


“I’m very fo­cused on the fact that when we bring some­thing back, it has to pass, and that there’s al­most no mar­gin for er­ror,” said U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Lighthizer.

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