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Ways and Means Tells Members: Administration Key to Fast Negotiations on USMCA

The trade staff of the House Ways and Means Committee told Democrats who are anxious for a ratification vote on the new NAFTA that the rewrite "will be ready for a vote as soon as it is ready; no sooner, and also no later," in a memo that was structured as an imagined dialogue between a member who wants a vote and the committee chairman, who has a big say on when that vote happens.

The memo has the questioner saying: "How much longer will negotiations take?" The memo, updated Sept. 9, before U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sent his counterproposal, said the ball was in USTR's court to make serious counterproposals.

"It is up to the Administration how fast and intensive negotiations in September and October will be," the memo said. "The Working Group will work as hard and fast in these negotiations as the Administration is prepared to move." Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., leads the nine-member working group of Democrats. The memo, while not public on the committee's website, is circulating among trade lawyers following the ratification.

"Why are House Democrats even seeking improvements to the deal? Why not just agree to the USMCA as is, particularly given the President’s threats to withdraw from NAFTA," the memo imagines the member asking.

"These improvements are critical not only to this agreement but also future agreements," the staff replied. "The Working Group is working hard for you so that this is done right."

The questioner asks why the Mexican labor reform law isn't enough to satisfy the working group. "Mexico now has a good law on paper, but it needs to demonstrate that it has the resources, infrastructure, and political will to follow through on promised reforms. Mexico also must overcome the efforts of powerful stakeholders in the country who are actively opposed to the new labor reform and working to undermine it," the memo says. "The USMCA does not contain any monitoring or enforcement mechanisms that would provide Congress with confidence that paper reforms will lead to change on the ground in Mexico."

The memo imagines a member arguing that farmers are suffering because of President Donald Trump's trade war with China and retaliation from Europe, and saying that passing the renegotiated NAFTA would provide certainty for farmers. This is a main talking point of advocates of a swift vote.

"Passing USMCA won’t fix the President’s erratic and unpredictable trade actions. It also won’t fix the negative effects of these actions on farmers and small businesses," the staff replies. They also note that farmers are likely suffering because of the president's decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"While the President recently announced an agreement in principle with Japan, reliable information about the deal is scarce. This is because the Administration’s negotiations have been opaque and conducted outside the established framework for consulting with Congress," the memo said.