WASHINGTON, June 21, 2017 – U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told lawmakers today he expects a speedy conclusion to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but he would not commit to a deadline.
“I have seen reports that suggest that we have a deadline,” Lighthizer told the Senate Finance Committee during a two-and-a-half-hour hearing. “There are people who have talked about this being done by the end of the year. That might happen … From my point of view, I don’t have any deadline.”
What he does have, Lighthizer said, is a responsibility to get a new NAFTA deal that reduces the U.S. trade deficit, stops U.S. companies from moving factories to Mexico and protects provisions of the current trade pact that have boosted U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the panel's ranking Democrat, pushed Lighthizer on what he’s do if the talks break down. Would the U.S. pull out of NAFTA, settle for smaller goals or just try to continue to negotiate? Wyden asked.
Lighthizer didn’t agree to any of those options.
“From my point of view, we’re going to get a very good agreement, and we’re going to do it as quickly as we can, but without any artificial deadlines,” he said. “I am prepared to continue to negotiate until we get a high-standard agreement unless there is a total stalemate. In that case I’ll be back in front of this committee and I’ll consult with the senators.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Lighthizer the committee would hold him to that promise.
Senators also stressed they would hold Lighthizer to the promise that he would not allow U.S. farmers to lose their export markets in the NAFTA countries.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Lighthizer to reassure the committee that U.S. agriculture exports to Mexico and Canada will not be negatively affected by NAFTA negotiations.
“We realize they are a very huge agriculture market,” Lighthizer said of the two countries with which the U.S. shares a border. “It’s very important that we not move backwards … and, certainly, both our trading partners are aware that’s our position.”
It’s not just senators who are concerned about jeopardizing the gains U.S. farmers have made under the 23-year old trade pact. The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) alerted the committee to their concerns in written testimony.
“Modernizing NAFTA is also an excellent opportunity to improve domestic and export marketability of U.S. crops,” NAWG President David Schemm said in the document. “However, NAWG strongly opposes any changes that might limit the current NAFTA’s benefits for wheat farmers and their customers. Exiting NAFTA and certain changes, could lead to tariffs on U.S. wheat and threaten to undermine the long-standing, loyal relationship U.S. wheat farmers have built with Mexico’s wheat buyers and food industry.”
Lighthizer repeatedly assured lawmakers during the hearing that he would protect agricultural exports, but he was also adamant that the Trump administration will be demanding big changes too.
“I’m not going to be in a position where I’m going to commit to the status quo going on forever,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”