Background

A delay in confirming Robert Lighthizer as the next U.S. trade representative appears to be holding up the Trump administration’s efforts to launch talks on renegotiating NAFTA. Lighthizer was approved by the Senate Finance Committee April 24 but it is unclear when the full Senate might act. One press source said a vote could come during the week of May 8 but another said it may not happen until the week of May 15.

Administration officials continue to decry the tripartite trade agreement but Trump agreed in late April to renegotiate it rather than withdraw from it. However, formal talks cannot begin until 90 days after the president notifies Congress of his intent to renegotiate the agreement, which press sources indicate will not happen until Lighthizer is confirmed by the Senate. A Forbes article adds that the actual talks will likely be conducted by subject matter experts “a couple of levels below cabinet rank” and that Trump has “mostly not appointed these people, much less gotten them confirmed by the Senate.”

A draft congressional notification leaked to the press in late March set forth dozens of potential changes to the 23-year-old agreement. However, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has asserted that the draft was just one of several alternatives that has been discussed by administration officials and was “blown up by the media.”

In the meantime, the aborted executive order that would have withdrawn the U.S. from NAFTA could provide additional insights into the administration’s negotiating objectives. This document asserted that the U.S. will pursue free, fair, and reciprocal trade agreements that increase U.S. economic growth, decrease the U.S. trade deficit, raise U.S. wages, maintain the integrity of U.S. borders, and strengthen the U.S. manufacturing and industrial bases, and that NAFTA “has not met any of these conditions.”

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