CBC.CA: As NAFTA talks roll on, all roads lead through U.S. Congress

Earlier this month, Canada launched a challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement against recently announced U.S. duties on Canadian softwood lumber imports. (CBC)

by Rob Merrifield | November 25, 2017

To keep border open, U.S. elected officials must be reminded about Canada’s contributions to local economies

Leading up to the sixth round of NAFTA talks, there has been every indication that President Donald Trump intends to withdraw the United States from the agreement, and though Alberta and Canada should be wary of this possibility, we need not throw in the towel.

That is because it is becoming obvious that Congress will have to wade in on both a U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA and a Canada-U.S. bilateral deal that would likely follow.

Heading into U.S. midterm elections in 2018, NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — is about to be overtaken by politics like never before. And while Alberta has seen U.S. domestic politics both kill and resurrect priorities for us like the Keystone XL pipeline, those same politics will likewise save our trading relationship with the U.S.

According to University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, approximately one-third of Alberta’s GDP relies on trade with the U.S., and our strongest play to preserve an open border is to ensure that Congress is cognizant of what our country’s contribution to their local economies really is.

Congress will play ball

All politics is local. And once each individual representative and senator knows how many jobs and how much investment within their state or district relies on free trade with Canada, we will see a Congress ready to play ball and protect that market access, no matter what.

Many business organizations are doing great work in this regard, informing members of Congress and senators of what the relationship with Canada means on their local level.

The Business Council of Canada recently put out a tool that drives the numbers down to the district level, which is invaluable information when visiting the office of a member of Congress.

Like I said, all politics is local, and if you can go into Rep. Mike Kelly’s office and tell him that his district, Pennsylvania’s 3rd, exports goods and services to Canada worth $817 million a year, and that 24 of the employers in his district have roots in Canada, that is a powerful argument in Canada’s favour.

We can also count on the fact that each of those 24 employers has been knocking on the congressman’s door with a fundraising cheque, holding onto it just a little bit longer than necessary while telling him that his support for open trade with Canada is critically important for their operations in his district, and the jobs they create.

Time to spread word in Washington

The government of Alberta should be complementing the work of business organizations such as the Business Council of Canada, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the many others spreading the word in Washington and in the states themselves.

Both our provincial and federal governments aren’t new to this kind of work, and we have been successful at it in the past.

For example, it was making the situation local for U.S. legislators that helped us win key congressional battles on country-of-origin labelling (COOL). I remember how effective it was for Canada to put California wines on a list for retaliation during the COOL days, and to see how representatives from that industry very quickly mobilized to warn their congressmen, congresswomen and senators to throw in the towel.

Soon after, COOL was dead — a relief to our province, which sends about 70 per cent of our beef exports south of the border.

I just arrived back home to Alberta from a trip to Washington last week, where I met with both Republican and Democrat legislators. It was encouraging to hear that they are beginning to feel the weight of compromised Canada-U.S. trade in their districts.

Alberta needs U.S. Congress onside

This weight will only intensify as midterms start to loom large in the new year. It’s important to realize that careers in Congress hang in the balance during midterms, not careers in the White House, and so that is where our focus needs to be.

No one can accurately predict how these NAFTA negotiations will turn out.

But it’s a pretty safe bet that whatever happens, any success that Alberta will have in maintaining an open border with the United States will need to have Congress onside.

Knocking on doors on Capitol Hill and bringing Congress up to speed is work that I have been involved in for over a decade.

In my experience, success there takes a whole of government and a whole of industry approach. It’s work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done right now.