It's time for Members of Congress to use their clout on NAFTA

As the fifth round of NAFTA 2.0 talks get going in Mexico City, it is hard to get a handle on what’s really happening –  especially when so much is behind closed doors. Since starting in August, negotiations have proceeded at an unprecedented and even reckless pace. Administration officials are trying to put an agreement on President Trump’s desk by the end of March. This self-imposed deadline is a political one – as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a recent speech, “if there's no resolution by more or less the end of March, the political calendar will make it very difficult to complete a deal." That’s not the only deadline that could be driving this train – the “fast-track” rules that Congress passed in the 2015 Trade Promotion Authority law expire by July 1, 2018 unless the President asks for an extension by April 1st – and neither House of Congress objects. Throw into the mix Trump’s threats to completely pull out of NAFTA if Canada and Mexico don’t agree to policies such as terminating the supply management system that assures a sustainable dairy sector in Canada, and you have a recipe for confusion and uncertainty.

Small-scale farmers and advocates for sustainable agriculture and social justice could support a revamped NAFTA that addresses the inequities of the current system, improves wages and quality of life for everyone, and fixes some big flaws in our trade rules, such as the repeal of country-of-origin labeling for meat. But the speed of these negotiations, the inside track afforded to transnational corporate interests, and the almost complete lack of transparency all threaten to derail positive outcomes. Instead, the NAFTA talks are likely either headed for a crash, or the same corporate interests that dominated the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) will once again get their way and write a free trade agreement that puts corporate interests ahead of people and the environment.

If we were talking about adopting a city zoning ordinance in just a few months, it might be possible, though still a rush job. But NAFTA isn’t a local ordinance. Rather, the Administration is engaged in a wide-ranging trade negotiation affecting the economies of three major countries, which currently involves 28 issue areas, including a wish-list of corporate proposals lifted from the supposedly rejected TPP and the suspended EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership  talks. These proposals include speeding up biotech approvals, food safety shortcuts that threaten worker safety as well as consumer health, weakening organic standards, plans to speed chemicals to market with less protective “risk based” reviews, ongoing deregulation through regulatory harmonization, and jacking up medicine costs by extending monopoly pricing and limiting government price negotiation.

Unlike a city ordinance, where details are posted online and changes are hashed out in multiple public workshops, NAFTA 2.0 is being negotiated without a public process, with secret text, and limited Congressional oversight. If anything, these negotiations are even less transparent than the talks that produced the TPP, and that’s saying something. The law requires the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to appoint a Chief Transparency Officer, but none has been appointed and USTR has not responded to questions about whether anyone is serving in an interim capacity. USTR has not replied to an August 16 letter circulated by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), which was signed by 50 members of Congress asking for the prompt appointment of the transparency officer; regular consultation with Congress; and allowing staff with security clearances to be able to do their jobs and review negotiating text without being accompanied by a member of Congress. USTR waited until the fifth round of negotiations to release updated NAFTA negotiating objectives, following complaints that the information previously provided failed meet the specificity and transparency Congress intended. Ranking Senate Finance Committee member Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) recently asserted USTR was violating the law and complained that the agency was “dragging its feet on updating the objectives because doing so would reveal unpopular positions.” 

While a few progressive USTR proposals opposed by corporate interests have been leaked to the media by “people close to the negotiations” and promptly attacked as “poison pills” by the Chamber of Commerce among other industry groups, most of NAFTA 2.0 remains cloaked in secrecy. Getting much less public attention, but perhaps more likely to end up in any final deal, are dozens of so-called “modernization” proposals similar to the corporate-friendly rules agreed to in the TPP, where negotiators are apparently making progress toward agreement. These likely include trade rules that go well beyond the original NAFTA to eliminate “non-tariff barriers” such as toxic pesticide restrictions and food safety inspections that are opposed by the corporate meat industry and other agribusiness interests

The NAFTA leaks and withdrawal threats have piqued the interest of the ethics watchdog American Oversight, which has launched a “NAFTA Watch” project to investigate the renegotiation. American Oversight has filed dozens of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests with USTR and the Department of Commerce seeking documents concerning communications and meetings with corporations, governments, and even Breitbart News. We can only hope that this FOIA strategy will begin to pierce the secrecy that surrounds not only the NAFTA renegotiation, but all of the Trump Administration’s trade activities. Alarmingly, USTR was meeting just this week for a second rounds of talks with British trade negotiators to discuss a trade deal with the United Kingdom – without following any of the normal procedures such as notice to Congress and advisory committees, and without regard to the fact the UK is barred from negotiating such a deal while it remains part of the European Union.

Despite giving up significant oversight authority over free trade agreements by adopting “fast track” rules in 2015, Congress still has a role in trade negotiations. By law, every single member of Congress may read negotiating text and attend negotiating sessions, and USTR must respond to briefing requests. More members need to step up to find out what’s going on in the NAFTA negotiations, to demand transparency and public participation, and to support a third track on trade that builds our economy anew and promotes strong and enforceable labor and environmental rules.