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.