While it was hardly the biggest story in Washington this week, the White House attempted to trumpet its successful negotiation of a new three-way trade pact with Mexico and Canada.

Intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, was hailed by President Donald Trump and his supporters as a great success that fulfilled his campaign promises to get tough on trade. Throughout the campaign, Trump decried NAFTA as a terrible deal for American workers, and promised to completely rewrite the pact — or abandon it entirely if those negotiations failed.

As is so often the case in politics (and with this administration in particular), the reality of the results doesn’t exactly match the lofty rhetoric — and in this case, that’s not really a bad thing. Far from being a completely new set of rules, in many ways the USMCA is an updated version of NAFTA. While it’s not just a facelift, it’s not exactly a revolutionary departure from the status quo, either. Wall Street seemed to appreciate that, as stocks surged after the announcement of the agreement.

It’s a relief that the countries were able to come to an agreement that would avert a trade war between the three North American neighbors. Opening up trade under NAFTA has generally been beneficial to the economies of all three countries, and abandoning that framework completely would have had unpredictable impacts on the global economy. The new deal allows the three countries to move forward as partners, while giving Trump the chance to claim credit for some changes.

Those changes certainly do have the potential to benefit the United States, even if they end up being more long-term and incremental ones than the White House had hoped. It’s certainly good that the USMCA will open up Canada’s dairy market to U.S. farmers, that the protections for intellectual property were increased, and that provisions were included to level the playing field for the auto industry. All of those changes are positive ones for the United States, and for which Trump can rightly claim credit. The USMCA also includes a sunset clause, allowing the countries to opt out of the deal after 16 years.

While the three leaders may have signed a piece of paper, this is just the beginning of the process. In fact, it faces an uncertain future in not only the U.S., but Canada and Mexico as well. In all three countries, it will have to be ratified by legislators, and the U.S. isn’t the only one with an election looming. Canada has federal elections next year, and though Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party has a sizable lead in the polls, conservatives have been doing well in regional elections there recently. In Mexico, the outgoing president signed the agreement; he’s set to be replaced by a populist leftist who’s no fan of Trump and who’s also criticized NAFTA on the campaign trail.


Domestically, the USMCA needs only a simply majority to be approved by Congress. GOP leadership has made it clear that they won’t be pushing it through before the midterms, though, so it will be debated in the next Congress. That’s entirely appropriate: Trade deals are enormously complex, and it will take some time for member of Congress to study the details. Moreover, it wouldn’t be right to consider the USMCA in the circus-like atmosphere before the midterm elections, allowing a thousand-page document to be turned into a 30-second attack ad.

That does mean that it could be up to a Democratic Congress to debate the proposal, if the midterms go poorly for the GOP. That may cause division amongst Democrats. Although much of the party’s base may expect leadership to oppose any proposal by Trump, there could be elements of the party who are more open to it. If labor unions support the proposal at all, that would open the door to bipartisan support, even if environmental groups and others oppose it.

On the Republican side there may be resistance as well. It will be interesting to see whether other Republicans who have criticized NAFTA in the past support the USMCA, and whether supporters of free trade embrace it. No matter how the midterms turn out, this issue will be one that dominates the next Congress, and it’s unlikely to be in a predictably partisan fashion. Debates over free trade deals frequently create difficult politics and unlikely alliances, and this one will be no exception.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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