Cuellar: USMCA vote depends on Mexico budget for labor enforcement
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Thursday that he expects Congress to vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade in November or December, but only if Mexico agrees to increase its budget for enforcing the labor provisions in the agreement.
Cuellar, one of the most vigorous Democrats advocating for congressional approval of USMCA, said at an American Security Project event that he has spoken with both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the White House about the prospects for USMCA since Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump, and that he expects both to keep impeachment and USMCA approval on separate tracks.
“The last couple days have kind of complicated things, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Cuellar, who has cautiously endorsed Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry plan.
But Cuellar said that what matters to House members, particularly Democrats, is whether Mexico budgets enough money to enforce the labor provisions in the agreement.
He said Mexican officials have explained to him that their government wants to cut spending, and that although it has proposed increasing spending on enforcement by 30% in one part of its labor department budget, it proposes a cut by 30% in another area.
Cuellar said when he reported that development to Pelosi, she noted she had served as a member of the House Appropriations Committee and understands budgeting, and that Mexico has to make a real increase in its budget for enforcement of labor provisions in the USMCA.
Pelosi told the House USMCA task force members she appointed that there “is an issue” with the labor budget, and they have taken the same position, Cuellar said. He added it was his “understanding” that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will make a proposal to the Mexican Embassy on the labor enforcement issue on Friday.
“If it’s a cut it is a losing proposition,” Cuellar said, referring to Mexico’s budget for enforcing the labor provisions.
House members are “digesting” the USMCA, Cuellar said, adding that although he wants it brought up, he does not see a vote for it in October.
Compared with the debate over the existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Cuellar said, U.S. labor unions are “not playing hardball. They are trying to get to a yes.”
Cuellar credited Lighthizer with doing “a very good job” on the labor issues, but said Mexico’s enforcement budget is still the key to getting congressional support.
At a panel discussion after Cuellar’s speech, Eric Farnsworth of the Washington office of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society said that the importance of NAFTA has gone beyond trade because it has increased trust between the United States and Mexico on security issues.
Ed Gerwin, a senior fellow for trade and global opportunity at the Progressive Policy Institute, said he favors approval of USMCA even though he doesn’t think highly of the “managed trade” in automobiles provision and doesn’t think that the dairy section will give the U.S. dairy industry much more access to the Canadian market.
But he said USMCA will make it easier for small business to export small shipments among the three countries and will “freshen up” the digital economy.
Gerwin also said that the impeachment debate may increase the likelihood that moderate Democrats will want “to vote quickly” on USMCA so that they can show they are doing something besides working on the impeachment of Trump.
Farnsworth said the situation could be complicated by the fact that previous trade agreements have required presidential leadership to get approved by Congress.
Gerwin and Farnsworth said another reason Congress should approve USMCA is so the government can move on to work on other issues.
Farnsworth said the U.S. should work on reform of the World Trade Organization and pursue a free trade agreement with Brazil.
Gerwin said it is important to “clear the decks,” reengage with Asia, and create a counterweight to China. He also said Congress should rein in Trump’s use of tariffs in the trade war, and that he has told Republicans they should support this because either Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could use the same powers if elected president.
–The Hagstrom Report