Will Congress pass USMCA this summer?
While the immediate ratification of U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is widely supported by the U.S. ag sector as another way to expand exports, many lawmakers, union leaders, auto sector workers, machinists and others still feel stung by the previous agreement between the U.S. Mexico and Canada.
As a result, it could be a long hot summer of debate before the U.S. Congress will consider the new trade pact. Many fear that approval may be delayed until the end of the year.
Several House Democrats stood in the sweltering Washington, D.C., heat recently with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, pledging to the press and other supporters that there will be no vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement until the Trump administration meets their demands. They want a complete removal of a provision under which Mexico and Canada agreed to extend patents for biologic pharmaceutical drugs to 10 years as well as the installation of new labor standard enforcement provisions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called these provisions "deal breakers."
"You can have every kind of agreement in the world, but if you don't have enforcement, you're just having a conversation," Pelosi said last week. "We do not want to pass this agreement just slightly different from NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) with a little sugar on top and say, 'see we did something different.'"
However, she also signaled that she would seek approval, under the right conditions.
"We want to pass this bill," Pelosi said after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer met with House Democrats recently. She also echoed recent comments from other Democrats that when USMCA is reopened, it would be done "surgically" to prevent negotiators from trying to make widespread changes.
Republicans on the ways and means trade subcommittee are urging that the trade pact be voted on and approved as soon as possible.
"Every day that we delay, American consumers, farmers and businesses lose," said Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo. "The ink on USMCA is dry and the American people are urging Congress to act. Let's take a vote."
Sen. Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has also been touting the benefits of the previous agreement, as well as the potential to increase exports.
"Since NAFTA's implementation in 1994, our agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have more than quadrupled," Grassley said recently. "Corn exports increased sevenfold."
Mexico already passed legislation to implement the labor reforms called for in USMCA, which require the country to redo roughly 700,000 labor contracts that were written under business-formed unions that often gave workers no say in wages or benefits. The problem is that many Democrats still don't trust Mexico to follow through with it.
Democrats fear that Mexico would not live up to its promises to improve labor standards and wages — something they believe is a likely scenario given the country's long history of allowing so-called "ghost unions" to dictate workers' rights.
But GOP lawmakers argue that Mexico has already signaled its willingness to change and that any delay hurts the U.S. economy.
"Now it's time for the U.S. Congress to pass USMCA as soon as possible to unlock the benefits of this agreement for U.S. workers and our local businesses," Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said after Mexico's legislature ratified USMCA. "The longer Congress delays, the more our country loses out on new jobs, more customers for Made-in-America goods, and a stronger economy."
Farm and ranch groups are hoping to keep the pressure on to ensure passage in 2019.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association launched a media campaign urging Congress to pass USMCA. The campaign features personal stories from cattle and beef producers across the country who want Congress to ratify the USMCA as quickly as possible.
"The USMCA keeps the highly successful framework for U.S. beef trade in place and preserves access to two of our largest export markets," said NCBA President Jennifer Houston. "Cattle producers need certainty with Canada and Mexico so that we can continue to build on 25 years of duty-free, unrestricted trade in North America."