Talks on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will continue through the Thanksgiving break, with a vote possible in the weeks ahead, House leaders said.
Democratic lawmakers left the capital for the Thanksgiving break on Thursday without a final agreement on President Trump’s revised North American trade deal, prolonging a difficult negotiation with the administration on one of the president’s trade priorities.
But top House Democrats insisted that they were closing in on a deal on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that would satisfy their remaining concerns. Talks will continue over the break, and a vote to ratify the deal could come in the following weeks, they said.
“We’re going to stay right at this for the next week,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, after a private meeting on Thursday with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative. “We do think we’re down to two and a half, maybe three issues.”
Mr. Neal, who called the meeting “spirited” but “candid,” said the parties had made substantial progress. He did not elaborate, but said some of the progress related to enforcement, a major area of concern for Democrats.
Ms. Pelosi echoed his comments. “I think we’re narrowing our differences,” she told reporters as she left the hourlong meeting near the House floor. “We made progress.”
But despite their positive statements, the parties may miss their 2019 deadline for approving the deal even if an agreement in principle is reached in the coming weeks.
Republicans have repeatedly hammered Democrats over the delays. “We are one week out from Thanksgiving, and there is still no tangible sign of progress from the House,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said in a floor speech Thursday. “If the House cannot pass the U.S.M.C.A. this year, there is no way they’ll be able to claim the people’s business has not taken a back seat to impeachment.”
Officials from Canada and Mexico have signed off on the agreement, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pact that has governed commerce on the continent for a quarter-century. But it needs congressional approval, which hinges on a vote in the Democratic-controlled House.
Such a vote would hand Mr. Trump a key political accomplishment in an election year. For Democrats, it would be evidence of their ability to advance legislation while also pursuing an impeachment inquiry, and it would lock in some changes to the North American trade deal they support.
Mr. Neal insisted on Thursday that Congress could still vote on the pact this year. But before the meeting with Mr. Lighthizer, Ms. Pelosi signaled that a vote might have to wait until next year.
“I’m not even sure if we came to an agreement today, that it would be enough time to finish,” she said. She and Mr. Neal have repeatedly said a deal would be possible once Mr. Lighthizer offered a way to ensure that there were adequate enforcement mechanisms.
The administration’s trade deal contains some provisions that Democrats have long fought for, including rules meant to encourage auto companies to make more of their cars in North America. The plan also contains provisions meant to strengthen Mexican labor unions and roll back a special system of arbitration for corporations that has long been opposed by Democrats.
But Democrats say some portions of the agreement do not go far enough. They have protested a provision that would increase intellectual property protection for certain advanced drugs as a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. They have argued that the pact’s labor and environmental provisions are too weak, and that the deal lacks an adequate enforcement mechanism that countries can turn to if one party breaks the rules.
Ms. Pelosi and the cluster of Democrats who have been negotiating with Mr. Lighthizer in recent weeks have framed this as an opportunity to set a standard for future trade agreements.
“There’s a feeling of urgency among some of our members, and I just want them to consider the big picture,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, a member of the group negotiating with Mr. Lighthizer. “This is a legacy vote.”
Supporters fear that, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, the pact could attract more scrutiny from voters and more criticism from the Democratic candidates, making it more difficult for congressional Democrats to support it.
“Time is running out on the most important trade event of the Trump administration,” said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Freshman lawmakers huddled with Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., this week as part of a campaign to assuage the fears of some more moderate lawmakers eager to deliver word of the deal to their districts. But little indication was given in regards to a specific date, and Mr. Trumka previously pressured both the administration and Congress to not rush a deal.
“It feels like we’ve been at the five-yard line for a while,” said Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California and a negotiator. “But in the end, if we get what we need, it’s going to be a different agreement. It’s not going to be ‘NAFTA lite.’”
On, Nov. 30, 1999, 50,000 union members, residents and activists from a huge variety of causes came together in downtown Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
At the invitation of then-president Bill Clinton, 700 trade officials from 134 countries were in Seattle to talk about expanding the WTO, and hundreds of journalists from around the world had come to report on it.
Until then, few people in the world had heard of the WTO, established five years earlier to police a new set of global trade agreements. Earlier international trade agreements dealt with trade in goods, and focused on reducing tariffs as barriers to trade. The 1994 agreement that created the WTO went well beyond that, opening up trade in services, enforcing commitments to respect “intellectual property” (state-sanctioned monopolies like patents and trademarks), and giving unelected trade dispute judges the authority to strike down “non-tariff barriers to trade” — such as public health and environmental regulations. By 1999, WTO trade tribunals had ruled repeatedly for corporations and against regulations intended to protect dolphins and sea turtles, food safety and many others.
This is what democracy looks like
What happened in Seattle the week of Nov. 28-Dec. 3 was the reaction to all that. It was the product of nine months of diligent organizing and coalition building. Labor and environmental groups committed significant resources.
Labor’s main contribution was massive turnout on Nov. 30, Day One of the four-day WTO summit. Roughly 25,000 union members and allies filled Memorial Stadium in Seattle Center and — joined by another 10,000 students, environmentalists and community members — took part in a mile-long march to the Washington Convention Center, where they collided with another 15,000 people who were already occupying the streets.
For labor, it was a logistical feat that has never been repeated since. From San Francisco to British Columbia, as many as 30 national AFL-CIO staff worked with allies in groups like Jobs with Justice to get commitments for local union participation and coordinate the logistics of getting people to the event. All told 185 buses, nine charter planes, two trains and countless cars brought union members to the rally.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions arranged its annual meeting to take place in Seattle just beforehand so that hundreds of trade unionists from around the world could be there. So did the United Steelworkers (USW) with its Rapid Response conference, which drew over 500 local union officers. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down ports all up and down the West Coast so members could take part. As many as 1,000 members of 19 Teamsters Washington locals from mobilized. Portland Machinists Local 1005 paid lost wages so members could afford to take the day off work. Seattle Machinists Local 751 volunteered several hundred members as marshals for the march.
And that was just the union side of the coalition.
Today, Mike Dolan works as the Teamsters union’s top trade policy lobbyist in Washington, DC. But in 1999, he was the field director for Global Trade Watch, a division of the non-profit group Public Citizen. More than anyone else, Dolan was the Paul Revere of the Seattle WTO protests. Starting in March when Seattle was announced as the meeting site, Dolan invited local, national and international labor, environmental and non-profit leaders to form an ad hoc coalition. The coalition soon opened an office in downtown Seattle and undertook a region-wide mobilization against corporate globalization. Staff and volunteers working with Dolan spent the next six months visiting college campuses, churches, union halls and neighborhood groups with a call to join the WTO protest.
Dolan’s vision was for a week of massive protest demonstrations led by labor and non-profit groups — to send the message that WTO was a threat to workers rights, the environment, and democracy worldwide. Others got busy with plans for non-violent civil disobedience, and formed the Direct Action Network, a West Coast network of local grassroots organizations opposed to corporate globalization. To train hundreds of protesters in Greenpeace- and EarthFirst- style blockade tactics, the newly formed Ruckus Society held three-day “Globalize This” training camps at a farm north of Everett, Washington.
As the WTO meeting neared, there were tensions between those who wanted to protest the WTO and those who wanted to shut it down by preventing WTO delegates from getting to their meeting. Labor officials wanted nothing to do with the street blockades.
The week of activity began Friday Nov. 26 with teach-in that packed Seattle’s 2,500-seat Benaroya Concert Hall for two days. On Sunday, Nov. 28, the Washington Council of Churches filled St. James Cathedral with a “Jubilee 2000” prayer service calling for third world debt relief. On Monday, hundreds of Steelworkers, Teamsters and others marched with about 250 environmentalists dressed in cardboard turtle costumes. That night, thousands of people turned out in pouring rain to form a human chain surrounding a corporate-sponsored reception for WTO delegates, while several miles away filmmaker Michael Moore and singer Michael Franti entertained thousands of others at a Key Arena “people’s gala” sponsored by USW, Teamsters, Rainforest Action Network and others.
And all that was trivial compared with what was to happen the following day.
Whose streets? Our streets!
Jeremy Simer today works as a strategic researcher for SEIU Local 49 in Portland. In 1999, he was a recent graduate of University of Washington. In mid-summer, he began working full-time for Dolan’s group doing neighborhood-level organizing. But after having worked for months to get people to come to the big labor rally and march, Simer himself decided to go to where the civil disobedience would occur.
The day activists had dubbed a “festival of resistance” began at 7 a.m. with not one but two giant puppet parades. As the parades wound through downtown, organized “affinity groups” peeled off and made their way to agreed-upon intersection where they linked arms, sat down, and in some cases locked themselves together. The tactic took police by surprise.
But it wasn’t long before police moved in to try to clear streets. Twenty years later, Simer still remembers seeing protesters prodded by police batons, bruised by rubber bullets, hit in the face by gas canisters, and sprayed at close range with chemical agents. He also remembers the courage, discipline, and determination of the protesters as they stayed put and held on to intersections, or when dislodged, regrouped to try again.
Over the next six hours, police managed to clear some intersections, but with most delegates unable to get through, to worldwide shock, the WTO canceled its opening ceremony.
Meanwhile, with streets occupied and tear gas in the air, police appealed to labor leaders to delay their march until the streets could be cleared. But at a certain point, labor leaders could no longer control the thousands of union members. Two hours and dozens of speakers into the rally, large numbers began leaving the stadium to assemble outside for the march. By the time then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney took the stage, the stadium was largely empty.
The plan had been for labor marchers to set out, led by Harley-riding Machinists, be met by feeder marches from University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College, and proceed to the Convention Center where the WTO meeting was to be held. But outside the stadium, careful plans melted into organized chaos as contingents of Tibetan monks, topless women protesters, French farmers, church groups and students crammed in next to groups of union members in matching colored ponchos.
And as the slow-moving march neared the Convention Center, the streets they expected to pass through there were still occupied, full of demonstrators linking arms and blocking intersections. Concerned that the labor march would disintegrate or be exposed to tear gas, the decision was made to turn the march several blocks shy of the planned route. Brian McWilliams, then president of the ILWU, remembers it as a pivotal moment.
“At the front there was a huge mass of people determined to intervene with what was going on outside the Convention Center,” McWilliams recalls. “I think it was a huge mistake not to go forward, because we were all of singular mind about interfering with the blueprint the WTO had for workers and business and the world, and we needed to take it straight to the convention center.”
As Machinists in orange parade marshal hats struggled mightily to turn the march around, individual labor union members made their own decision. Others stood in the street and caucused with fellow members. Maybe a third of the marchers kept going, and were greeted with cheers like reinforcing cavalry when they arrived at occupied intersections.
Union steelworker Erv Schleufer is one of those who kept going. Now retired, in 1999 he was a participant in a bitter strike-lockout at the Kaiser aluminum smelter in Spokane and had traveled the West as a union “road warrior” speaking about their struggle.
“We had spent all those months and tens of thousands of miles preparing for this,” Schleufer says. “I started thinking about my history teacher in high school.… I realized this was becoming a moment in history.”
While Schleufer and thousands of other labor marchers lingered with the occupiers for an hour or two, police held back from further attempts to clear the streets. As unionists left, the police moved back in forcefully. As night fell, Seattle mayor Paul Schell declared a curfew and police pushed the remaining protesters out of downtown into the Capital Hill neighborhood.
Further protests had been planned throughout the WTO summit. But now the mayor declared a huge area of downtown Seattle a “protest free zone,” in violation of the U.S. Constitution. On the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 1, National Guard members stood watch near the Convention Center. Squads of police in riot gear zoomed through the streets in armored personal carriers on the lookout for protesters. Groups of protesters who entered downtown were subject to mass arrests. Over 500 were arrested, put on buses, taken to Sand Point Naval Base, and later transferred to King County Jail, where they were held until the end of the WTO summit. Unable to assemble near the Convention Center, protesters and community members surrounded the jail demanding their release. Contingents of unionists brought food and supplies to the jailhouse vigil, which continued for days.
In the afternoon on Dec. 1, the USW led hundreds on a march to the Seattle waterfront, outside the protest-free zone. When the rally there ended, activists pleaded for unionists to enter downtown and defy the ban. Schleufer and others marched into downtown and soon felt the shock of police concussion grenades and the sting of tear gas. “We could see canisters flipping through the air, and people running from the gas. I lost about half my vision and had a hard time breathing,” he said.
On Dec. 3, the final day of the WTO meeting, the King County Labor Council was ready to defy the “protest-free” zone. With marshals holding ropes to mark the perimeter of the march, unionists and allies marched into downtown … and were left alone by police.
Meanwhile, local labor leaders had pushed for jailed protesters to be released. McWilliams, the ILWU president, threatened to shut down the port again if the mayor didn’t release them. The mayor relented.
The WTO talks collapse
Lori Wallach, then and now the leader of Global Trade Watch, spent much of that week inside the WTO meeting, lobbying foreign trade ministers as a credentialed observer. Wallach says leading up to the summit, there’d already been tensions among trade negotiators. The United States and some other developed countries were pressuring poor nations to agree to things like stricter pharmaceutical monopolies, and arrogantly dismissed the proposals of African and Latin American nations. What brought the situation inside to a boil was the existence of invitation-only “green rooms,” where delegates from the “important” nations met for long hours to hash out a final deal they expected the rest of the nations to approve.
“Because of that there were extended periods of time where there would be a whole set of delegates from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, basically left in the halls watching the protests on big TVs hung in the halls,” Wallach said. “They’d come all this way and now they were being left out of the negotiations, watching these American protesters being beaten up and tear gassed.”
“The passion and commitment displayed in those protests was the last special ingredient to tip over the edge a process that was already seen as illegitimate and not in the interests of a lot of the member countries.”
On the final day of the summit, the WTO announced that the meeting had failed: Delegates were unable to agree on the terms of a new global deal.
Exhilarated by the Battle in Seattle, anti-corporate-globalization activists tried to recreate that success at other international summits, but with less success. The WTO held its next meeting in 2001 in Doha, Qatar, a Gulf State monarchy where visa restrictions prevented a recurrence of protest. After the 9/11 attacks, the anti-WTO activist movement subsided. But the political stigma of the WTO persisted.
“The WTO never recovered from its crisis of legitimacy,” Wallach says. Negotiations continued for 15 years, but never resulted in a new agreement.
Now, even the WTO’s trade dispute process is grinding to a halt. When two member nations can’t resolve a trade dispute, it’s supposed to be decided by a three-judge panel selected from a seven-member WTO court of appeals. But as their terms expire, the Trump administration has been unilaterally blocking the appointment of new judges. The body is down to just three members, the minimum needed tohear a case. On Dec. 9, the terms of two more judges will expire, at which point the WTO will be incapable of hearing appeals, and thus no have way to enforce its rules.
Beef labeling issues gained attention on Capitol Hill last week, drawing mixed reactions from cattle producers.
Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., introduced a resolution Oct. 30 calling for congressional support for country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork.
The same day, Republican Sen.s Mike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota introduced the Beef Integrity Act to restrict the use of “Product of the USA” in voluntary labeling to beef from cattle that are born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.
Both measures are supported by U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and R-CALF USA, but they raise red flags for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
For USCA, it’s a matter of truth in labeling, Kenny Graner, a North Dakota rancher and USCA president, said.
Since country-of origin (COOL) was repealed for beef in 2015, the label means nothing. Beef from other countries can be salted, cooked, cut or simply repackaged in the U.S. and be labeled as a product of the U.S. under USDA voluntary labeling policy, he said.
The same is true for beef from imported cattle slaughtered and processed in the U.S.
“Processors can just slap a (U.S.) label on it,” he said.
The U.S. imports beef from 20 countries, which have lower standards of production and processing. The U.S. also imports cattle for beef production from Canada and Mexico, he said.
Graner said the deceptive labeling of those products puts U.S. cattle producers at a disadvantage.
He maintains that the U.S. has the highest standards in the world for genetics, production and processing, and that makes a difference in the taste of beef. If consumers had the ability to taste that difference, USCA believes it would increase demand for true U.S. beef, he said.
In October, USCA filed a petition with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to restrict labels of “Product of USA” and “Made in USA” to beef from cattle born, raised and harvested in the U.S.
The Beef Integrity Act is putting light on the petition to get FSIS to act to stop deceptive labeling, he said.
“Right now there’s no oversight, period … the label means nothing,” he said.
USCA’s first priority is to stop the deception in voluntary labeling, but the ultimate goal is mandatory country-of-origin labeling.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, however, contends a return to COOL would have costly consequences.
Such a move would subject the U.S. industry to $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs, Ethan Lane, NCBA vice president of government affairs, said.
The World Trade Organization ruled four times that COOL for beef and pork violated U.S. trade obligations and discriminated against imported cattle and hogs from Canada and imported cattle from Mexico. It authorized $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs in 2015, resulting in congressional repeal of the law for beef and pork.
Those tariffs would be immediately effective if COOL were reinstated, Lane said.
USCA’s Graner disagrees.
COOL is in effect for other food products — such as nuts, fruits, poultry and fish – and the WTO issues with beef could be corrected, he said.
As for the Beef Integrity Act, NCBA’s concern is it would trigger the same result as COOL even though it doesn’t involve a mandatory label, Lane said.
NCBA also feels the bill is premature. Rounds and Thune were unable to get much data on the use of labels, he said.
NCBA is working on the same issue, gathering more information to understand the scope of labeling practices being used, he said.
That information is needed “before asking government to further regulate our industry,” he said.
A successful trade agreement with Canada and Mexico depends on fair treatment for Mexican workers.
As negotiations with the Trump administration on a new North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico approach their crescendo, Congress may soon have a once-in-a-generation chance to remake our nation’s core trade relationship.
A generation after its passage, NAFTA’s worst legacy remains its destruction of good-paying jobs for working men and women. House Democrats have made crystal clear that any new deal must undo this damage. But achieving this outcome depends most of all on the Mexican government, which historically has shown at best, apathy and, at worst, outright hostility to labor rights.
Why does Mexico’s treatment of Mexican labor impact American workers? Mexico’s repeated failure to impose vigorous labor standards has produced artificially low wages, which have attracted American jobs south like flies to a honeypot. Mexico’s lack of labor standards, failure of enforcement, and non-investment in strong unions have incentivized a generation of outsourcing. Absent real labor reform in Mexico, our middle-class positions will continue to mutate into sweatshop jobs.
Real reform requires Mexico to start looking at labor rights in a whole new way. Take Mexico’s treatment of unions: Fake contracts that fraudulent unions sign to protect the boss before workers are hired run rampant in Mexico. The results are hard to refute: since the passage of NAFTA, the gulf between Mexican and American wages has widened to Grand Canyon levels.
The revised NAFTA, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement or the USMCA, includes a “Labor Annex” that rightfully compels that all fraudulent union pacts be replaced within four years. Unfortunately, Mexican employers and sham unions filed lawsuits against implementation of a new labor law Mexico passed in May, which established processes to replace protection contracts. Appellate courts have granted injunctions against the law and more than 200 cases are still pending. And even if the law survives legal scrutiny, the Mexican government has proposed funding that’s woefully inadequate to create and staff the labor courts and labor inspectors the law would establish.
When I traveled to Mexico City in October as part of a delegation to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he assured me that he shares our broad concerns on labor standards. But in an official communication the following week to the House Ways and Means Committee (the congressional panel tasked with approving the USMCA), the president was more vague.
While noting that Mexico’s budget to effectuate labor reforms was significant, he did not promise that Mexico would ratify that funding. Furthermore, even if the promised funding is allocated, it is back-loaded, with only a small fraction of it earmarked for FY 2020, when any new institutions will be created and filled.
Just as important is enforcement. Even if Mexico swears on a stack of Bibles that its government will follow through on its labor promises, we will still need to follow Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom on verifying those assurances. In practical terms this means the inspection of independent workplaces and it means being able to stop goods from entering the United States that originate from facilities and plants that break the rules.
Given the horrendous labor conditions still common in Mexico in 2019, conditions have not improved, even as trade talks have heated up. This augurs very poorly for a functioning agreement.
In fact, even basic tenets of Mexico’s current labor law are being systematically violated. Goodyear Mexico fired dozens of workers in 2018 after they attempted to unionize at a plant where workers are paid an hourly wage of $1.58 (as Goodyear simultaneously lays off working Americans who make its tires for real wages). Mexico has yet to reinstate the workers.
Since NAFTA renegotiations commenced, there has been direct violence against labor leaders. Three activists seeking to organize a gold mine in southwestern Mexico were murdered. Brothers Víctor and Marcelino Sahuanitla Peña were beaten and shot as NAFTA talks were happening in Mexico City. In 2018, union leader Quintín Salgado was killed, and organizer Oscar Hernández Romero has been missing for two months. Mexican authorities have shown no interest in solving these crimes.
The picture of labor in Mexico is bleak. But so too are the signals we’ve received from the Trump administration, which has rebuffed our demands for making true Mexican labor reform integral to a deal. It’s obvious that Trump does not care about fixing labor standards in a new NAFTA. All the while, corporations continue to shift more jobs to Mexico. Tellingly, just one year ago GM announced it was ramping up production in Mexico and would close five U.S. plants, laying off more than 5,000 American workers.
The Trump administration promised throughout the process that the interests of American workers is their top priority, but unless and until there is a real enforcement mechanism to ensure Mexico implements new labor policy, that promise is hollow as a drum. If Trump wants Congress to ratify a new NAFTA, Mexico must root out its corruption against workers, raise wages, and exercise real enforcement or else our workers and theirs too will be left holding the bag for another generation.
The pending North American trade deal is stalled in Congress due to both Republican and Democratic opposition, even recently being deemed “dead” by former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman.
Negotiated over the past two years, this new trade deal, titled the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is meant to satisfy one of President Donald Trump’s earliest campaign promises: a repeal of and American withdrawal from the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Everyone is getting in on the USMCA lobbying game — even foreign agents. Arturo Jessel, who had a hand in negotiating NAFTA, registered as a foreign agent for the Mexican government, according to a recent FARA filing accessed using the Center for Responsive Politics’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool. His role is to “provide advice and counsel on the passage and implementation of” the USMCA legislation. This includes monitoring the actions of Congress and the Trump administration.
Enlisting a foreign agent is just another aspect of the concerted effort to push the North American trade deal. Domestic lobbying efforts are springing up, mostly funded by businesses hoping to pass a crucial piece of Trump’s agenda. Two groups bring together a wide variety of corporations and associations under the confusingly-similar named Pass USMCA Coalition and USMCA Coalition.A third organization, Trade Works for America, is a 501(c)(4), formed by Marc Short, before he was picked to be chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, and Republican strategist Phil Cox. One of the organization’s co-chairs is former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). In an Axios interview, Cox said the group hopes to spend $15 million to $20 million advocating for the legislation’s passage.
According to a spokesperson for the organization, the group has spent $302,000 on digital advertising and $396,325 on television. The spokesperson described via email the coalition’s goal as “educating voters about how the USMCA will grow the economy and create jobs in their local communities,” as well as “for voters — and their congressional representatives — to recognize that the USMCA is good policy for American workers and supporting the agreement transcends partisan politics.”
The spokesperson declined to provide details about where the money is coming from, instead emailing, “Trade Works for America is a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization whose members consist of businesses of all sizes and trade associations.”
At the end of April, Trade Works launched a “six-figure” TV and digital ad buy targeting voters in Iowa, Maine, Michigan, South Carolina, Wisconsin, New Mexico, California and Michigan. The 30-second ads target specific members of Congress including Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.). The ads tell viewers to call the representative and ask them to support the trade deal.
Trade Works spent $66,318 since March on Facebook ads. In the week of April 28 to May 4, it spent $11,270. The Facebook ads mostly target older users of the site.
Pass USMCA was an active spender in the early months of 2019. In the first quarter, it spent $30,000 on lobbying, employing eight different lobbyists. Three D.C. movers-and-shakers are listed as the coalition’s leaders.
A group of battleground House Democrats on Thursday staged a dramatic show of support for President Donald Trump’s NAFTA update at a special caucus meeting on the issue, upping pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the final stretch of negotiations.
The moderate Democrats privately worked to rally support for the trade deal ahead of the caucus-wide discussion, encouraging each other to show up and voice support for the deal, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.
Pelosi’s timeline to pass the trade deal matches the Trump administration’s own goal.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated on Thursday that a deal between House lawmakers and the Trump administration on the USMCA could be announced within the coming days.
“I do believe that if we can get this to the place it needs to be — which is imminent — that this can be a template for future trade agreements,” Pelosi told reporters during a weekly press briefing. “A good template.”
Pelosi added that she would like to see the trade agreement pass the House this year — a timeline that matches the Trump administration’s own goal.
The comments are the clearest indication yet that House Democrats are close to a deal with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer after months of negotiations on the pact’s labor, environmental, enforcement and prescription drug provisions.
In what could be another sign of progress, Pelosi also met on Thursday afternoon with the nine-member working group that she tapped to secure changes to the USMCA. The group had not been scheduled to meet this week as of Wednesday.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), speaking with reporters after the meeting, cautioned that he did not expect a deal to be announced Thursday, but that he would be speaking to Lighthizer on Thursday afternoon and “then we’ll proceed from there.”
Pelosi also has plans to speak with Lighthizer, Neal said.
“There’s a series of issues that are still a bit elusive but we’re trying very hard,” Neal, who leads the working group, said after the meeting.
Two people familiar with the ongoing negotiations also told POLITICO this week they see Democrats and Lighthizer reaching a handshake agreement within the next two weeks, before lawmakers head home for Thanksgiving.
Still, a deal in the next few days would leave only a narrow window for lawmakers to complete the necessary procedural steps and hold a vote on the deal before they wrap up for the year. The House is currently scheduled to adjourn on Dec. 12, leaving just 14 legislative days in 2019.
After House Democrats wrap up negotiations with Lighthizer, the onus will be on the Trump administration to get any changes to the pact approved by both Canada and Mexico, as well as to finalize an implementing bill to send to Capitol Hill.
Both the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees then plan to hold “mock mark-up” hearings — providing an opportunity for lawmakers to give feedback on the deal — before formal votes take place.
Pelosi appeared to recognize the ticking clock, saying Thursday that lawmakers will need to see a copy of the implementing legislation “as soon as we come to a conclusion” with Lighthizer.
She added that Democrats already “have an idea” of what the implementing bill will look like, which leaves the door open to the House potentially getting the agreement done this year. “That would be my goal,” she said.
If the House passes the deal, the legislation is expected to sail through the Republican-led Senate.
Of House Democrats’ four major concerns with the deal, the two areas that have proved the hardest to resolve are issues with labor provisions and enforcement of the overall deal. Pelosi underscored her focus on enforcement in particular but said the two sides “are moving positively.”
But it remains to be seen whether labor unions like AFL-CIO will support the deal or opt to publicly oppose it. Democrats have long acknowledged that it’s important that unions not be vocal opponents of the pact. People close to the negotiations have indicated that the goal is to ensure the unions at least say neutral.
Asked whether he believed support for USMCA from the labor movement was in reach, Neal said: “I do and we need it.”
“I think we would all agree that right now the proposal we have in front of us is substantially better than NAFTA that’s 25 years old. Whether or not it’s enough, we’ll have to figure that out,” Neal said.
Pelosi also struck an optimistic tone when asked how organized labor groups like the AFL-CIO might respond to the negotiated fixes. She noted simply how Democrats and labor have “shared values.”
As a manufacturing worker of more than 20 years, I can speak firsthand to the devastation that the North American Free Trade Agreement has caused to our workforce. So can the 150,000 active and retired members of my union, IUE-CWA. Time after time, NAFTA has allowed our major employers to shift good jobs out of this country.
Since NAFTA’s enactment in the mid-1990s, workers in Ohio and across the industrial Midwest have lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and millions more workers have seen their wages and benefits decline. Big companies have used corporate-friendly trade policies and the threat of shipping more jobs to Mexico to depress wages and benefits, hurting working families in our state. I’ve watched firsthand as manufacturing plants, like Delphi-owned Harrison Radiator and the General Motors Truck Plant in Dayton, have shut their doors due to outsourcing, leaving thousands out of work.
Aptiv PLC (formerly Delphi) for example, also has moved thousands of jobs to Mexico over the years. Other major employers like General Electric and Whirlpool have moved thousands more.
Because of NAFTA, these multinational corporations can easily move American jobs to Mexico, where workers have been exploited, unable to form democratic unions and make $2 an hour or less, and work without any rights or health and safety provisions.
Hardworking families on both sides of the border know we need a new deal to replace NAFTA, yet President Trump’s NAFTA replacement deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is not acceptable for Ohio workers. USMCA, which is currently under negotiation with Congress, is a missed opportunity and one that relies on too many elements of the failed model of corporate-friendly trade policies that have harmed working families in recent decades.
The overriding goal of our failed model of trade policy is to make it easier for companies to move jobs and productions anywhere in the world. Whenever you hear talk of removing “trade barriers,” that’s usually shorthand for the range of legal and regulatory policies that allow big companies to exploit and underpay workers, avoid taxes and not have to abide by real labor or environmental standards.
This ends up a race to the bottom for all, harming workers on both sides of the offshoring equation and resulting not only in lost jobs in the U.S., but weakened bargaining power and lower wages for all as companies can threaten offshoring.
For a renegotiated NAFTA to work better for workers, it would need to level the playing field. That means that it would need to include strong labor and environmental standards with swift and certain enforcement mechanisms.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s USMCA deal doesn’t address these issues. There are still too many loopholes and weaknesses in the standards, and the enforcement mechanism actually takes a step backward from past deals, in which labor and environmental enforcement was already far too weak.
Far from leveling the playing field, the current USMCA proposal clearly was hijacked by special interests for their own profits. Specifically, it includes provisions which would extend protections surrounding pharmaceutical monopolies, ensuring that sky-high prescription prices remain in place for too many in our state and across the country. Despite past claims that lowering pharmaceutical prices is a top priority, the president’s administration is aiming to lock these prices in and even discourage or block future legislation that would force companies to lower their prices.
Doing the bidding of Big Pharma is not helping working families in Ohio.
As Sen. Sherrod Brown recently summarized, “I want to support a NAFTA 2.0, but this has fallen far short.”
Our state’s workers deserve more than this missed opportunity. We need a better deal than the USMCA.
A letter from 11 Democrats expresses support for a drug patent provision in the NAFTA update that most of their caucus opposes.
Closeup Money rolled up with pills falling out, high cost, expensive healthcare
On Tuesday, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka insisted to Progressive Caucus members that the Democratic leadership would not hold a vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the update of NAFTA, without enforceable labor standards. That’s the position of House progressives, too. “If labor doesn’t sign off, we’re not signing off,” Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) told The Intercept.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been wavering in recent weeks, repeatedly stating that her caucus was “on a path to yes” in negotiations on the deal with U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), has been pressuring leadership to hold a vote on USMCA, arguing that it’s needed for swing-seat Democrats to show their ability to work with Republicans. Bustos has reportedly talked up the agreement at corporate fundraisers, saying that unions and progressives “will have to get over it.”
More brazenly, at the same time that a Democratic working group is negotiating with Lighthizer, members from the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions have written directly to the U.S. trade representative, asking him to preserve a key sticking point in the deal.
The letter, which has not been previously reported, encourages Lighthizer to keep the pharmaceutical exclusivity provisions in USMCA. Several of those on the letter are the kind of first-term frontline members that Bustos wants to protect. More than simply wanting to pass USMCA as a political show of “getting things done,” the letter reveals that these conservative Democrats actively want to export to Mexico and Canada the broken monopoly patent system that has generated such high drug prices in America.
A freshmen member, Representative Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), who is a chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, took the lead in authoring the letter. Ten other members have signed on, all of them from the right flank of the caucus. Six of them belong to both the Blue Dogs and the New Dems: Lou Correa (D-CA), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Joe Cunningham (D-SC), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Kendra Horn (D-OK), and Ben McAdams (D-UT). Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ ) is a Blue Dog, while Al Lawson (D-FL), Scott Peters (D-CA), and Kathleen Rice (D-NY) are New Dems. Cunningham, Horn, McAdams, and Van Drew are freshmen.
Six of these members (Peters, Brindisi, Horn, Cunningham, McAdams, and Correa) previously signed a letter supporting bringing USMCA to the floor this year. But this effort specifically takes a stance on the drug provisions opposed by most of their fellow House Democrats. That obviously strengthens the White House’s hand in negotiations.
While the letter begins with words of support for the working group that is attempting to resolve “outstanding concerns” with USMCA, it then goes into the pharmaceutical provisions. Currently, USMCA includes a 10-year data exclusivity period for new biologic drugs, which are complex manufactured drug therapies that come from living entities like cells or tissues. These drugs would be protected from “biosimilar” generic versions for those 10 years. The USMCA also expands the definition of a biologic, giving more drugs this exclusivity period.
Biologics happen to be the most expensive drugs on the market: Despite being 2 percent of all prescriptions, they represent 37 percent of all net consumer spending on drugs. Nearly all of the growth in net prescription drug spending since 2014 comes from biologics.
The 10-year data exclusivity period, which means that biosimilars could not be tested during this time, is actually shorter than the current 12-year period in the U.S. But Canada currently has an eight-year exclusivity law, and Mexico’s is five years. So the USMCA provision would increase patent monopoly periods throughout North America, and threaten affordability for expensive life-saving medications, particularly in Mexico. Similar protectionist provisions in a U.S. trade agreement with Chile increased unit prices for biologics in that country.
Moreover, locking in a 10-year exclusivity period in a trade agreement could pre-empt future congressional efforts to change the length of exclusivity in the United States. The other signatories to the agreement would be able to sue over violations arising from such changes in law.
In the letter, the authors write: “While we all have concerns with high drug prices, it is also clear that trade deals should not be designed to inherently undermine U.S.-based industries, but rather to raise standards abroad … we hope this provision will be used to push Canada and Mexico to shoulder their share of the burden in paying for innovation.” So Brindisi and his Blue Dog and New Democrat colleagues explicitly want to export these longer patent protections to Mexico and Canada, threatening access to drug treatments in those nations.
Most Democrats are opposed to the pharmaceutical provisions. Over 110 members wrote to Lighthizer in July requesting that the biologic provision be dumped out of the trade deal. Many first-term members in swing districts, such as Max Rose (D-NY), Jared Golden (D-ME), and Elaine Luria (D-VA), signed that letter; they clearly believe that lowering drug prices is a political win for Democrats in tight races, as well as the right policy choice.
The Brindisi letter nods to the idea that the USMCA “must not diminish Congress’s ability to enact subsequent legislation in the areas of intellectual property and pharmaceuticals.” They reference a “counter-proposal that would effectively address this concern.” That was reported by Politico last month; it would stipulate that if Congress pushed down its biologic exclusivity period to five or seven years, that would be binding on Canada and Mexico as well. While Canada and Mexico didn’t ask for biologics changes and would presumably be unconcerned with such a ratcheting down to a level closer to their current law, other countries with large pharmaceutical manufacturers, like in Europe, may not accept that as a template.
The authors even suggest that keeping the biologics component of the USMCA is critical to passing the signature Democratic drug-price legislation, H.R. 3. That bill would allow Medicare to directly negotiate prices on 25 prescription drugs per year. “Protecting the biologics data exclusivity component of USMCA in a manner that preserves our ability to legislate to lower the cost of prescription drugs without undermining American innovation is essential for the agreement’s prospects,” the letter states.
The conservative Democrats’ push to maintain the drug provisions in USMCA is occurring while a working group composed of a broad cross-section of the—Blue Dog Mike Thompson (D-CA) and New Democrat Terri Sewell (D-AL) are part of it – works with the Trump administration on the very same issues. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) have taken the lead on the drug pricing issue. Neither responded to a request for comment. Representative Brindisi also declined to respond.
Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), one of the more outspoken members on the issue, gave this statement to the Prospect: “Big Pharma drafted this provision of the USMCA to lock in an extra decade of their price-gouging monopolies. I stand with more than 100 of my fellow members of Congress opposing these sweetheart giveaways to the drug companies that are responsible for bankrupting countless sick Americans.”
Industry analysts suggest the votes already exist to pass USMCA out of the House, and Mexican officials have said publicly they expect approval soon. With lobbying teams plucked from Congress to defend corporate interests—including former Democratic leadership member Joe Crowley and former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, along with former officials from the U.S. trade representative’s office under President Obama—the full-court press is on. And the corporate wing of House Democrats, attempting to undermine negotiations on the drug provisions, is pitching in.
REP. CHERI BUSTOS, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is advocating internally for Democrats to wave through the House President Donald Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA, without any of the revisions demanded by labor unions and environmentalists — and despite concerns that it locks in high prescription drug prices.
Bustos has argued to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that approving Trump’s free trade deal is important for vulnerable House Democrats who recently flipped Republicans seats, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the Bustos strategy. The argument goes that those vulnerable Democrats would be able to demonstrate to constituents that while they may be pursuing impeachment, they are also willing to work across party lines with the president. Inside the House caucus, the messaging is referred to as showing the ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Pelosi’s office said the speaker did not intend to allow the trade agreement to move forward without addressing concerns from environmental, labor, and patients’ rights groups. A spokesperson for Bustos emphasized the Congresswoman’s support for labor and environment issues, and stated: “She and the speaker have taken meetings together with stakeholders to discuss these issues. The Congresswoman has faith in her colleagues currently working with our trade groups to resolve these issues – and has withheld her position on the trade deal until we see this process reach its conclusion – which she hopes is a trade deal that has support from a broad set of stakeholders. As she has said for months, there is still work to be done before we reach that point.” A House leadership aide suggested that Bustos and the centrists pushing for a vote have an uphill climb, because the fall and spring floor schedule is crowded, and Bustos currently lacks the sway to work her will.
Bustos has help in making the DCCC’s argument to the caucus: former caucus Chair Joe Crowley, who was ousted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is now a paid lobbyist for Trump’s revised NAFTA, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. He’s joined in the effort by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who has also become a lobbyist for Trump’s trade deal.
Bustos said labor unions and progressive Democrats “will have to get over it.”
Republicans, too, are urging the strategy on. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the top-ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, told CNBC viewers on Friday that he was optimistic Democrats would soon sign off on Trump’s deal. “I think we’re a couple weeks from getting a green light,” he said. Pelosi, he argued, needed a political win for moderates in the context of the impeachment fight, echoing the Bustos argument.
“This new trade agreement is everything Democrats dreamed of for labor and environment,” he said. “They have never sniffed the kinds of reforms you’re seeing in this agreement, and for her moderate and competitive members, they can’t go home with just impeachment in their pocket. They’ve got to have some economic growth.”
The push represents a remarkable gamble: that it is worth undermining key constituencies by signing a subpar agreement on the chance that it could help a handful of Democrats in swing districts win reelection. In addition, the assessment itself is questionable; if a voter is angry that a Democrat voted to impeach Trump, it’s difficult to see how that anger would be lessened by learning that the representative also voted for Trump’s trade deal. Endorsing bad Republican policy for uncertain political gain may be a hallmark of Democratic centrism, but supporting Trump’s unrevised trade deal is an unusually extreme example.
Rank-and-file House Democrats are worried that the poorly negotiated deal would lock in lower wages, environmental destruction, and higher drug prices for decades. USMCA is a renegotiated version of NAFTA, but only goes into effect if and when it is approved by Congress. The legislative branch is negotiating changes to the deal that would then need to be agreed to by Canada and Mexico. Without a new agreement, the old NAFTA remains in effect indefinitely.
Instead of rubber-stamping Trump’s trade deal to prove they can legislate, Rep. Rosa DeLauro argued, the party should point to its own record of passing legislation that McConnell has proudly obstructed.
Though the Bustos strategy has not previously been publicly reported, it is widely known among Democrats following the trade pact closely that Bustos is pursuing it and causing significant internal tension. Those tensions bubbled to the surface, in a coded way, in an op-ed published recently in The Hill by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who is a longtime ally of Pelosi’s, but a strong opponent of the trade deal in its current form. She began her op-ed, which called for revising the trade deal, with a rebuttal of the argument being made by Bustos, without naming Bustos. “The U.S. House of Representatives has been busy doing the people’s work, passing 387 bills to date addressing American’s greatest challenges,” she wrote. “Sadly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has killed them all, celebrating his role as a ‘Grim Reaper’ against efforts to decrease skyrocketing prescription drug prices, to reduce gun violence, and more.”
Readers unfamiliar with the internal debate would have noticed nothing significant about her opening, but insiders locked in the fight saw it clearly: Instead of rubber-stamping Trump’s trade deal to prove they can legislate, DeLauro argued, the party should simply point to its own record of passing legislation that McConnell has proudly obstructed.
Bustos has been blunt in speaking about USMCA to corporate allies at fundraisers, saying that labor unions and progressive Democrats “will have to get over it,” sources said. That posture, though, has put her at odds not only with progressives, but also with the Congressional Black Caucus. At a recent private meeting between CBC members and Bustos, focused largely on how the DCCC can do better when it comes to diversity and advocacy for people of color, CBC members raised Bustos’s aggressive push for an unrevised USMCA. Enflaming the left, they argued, gives energy to progressive primary challengers, who many of them are currently facing or worried about potentially facing. The message to House leadership, said one source close to the CBC, was: “We get what your focus is” — fortifying moderates in swing districts — ”but you have to take into consideration other folks who are getting primaried from the left.” The reticence of the CBC to embrace the leadership push for a quick vote is another indicator of the power of primary challenges to reshape the political terrain, even if most of them fail.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, has been making a similar argument to Bustos’s, but less for protection of vulnerable members and more because he believes that the deal is good enough. Unions, he has argued internally, will just have to go along. He has proposed a divide-and-conquer strategy, by appending pension reform — a high priority of the Teamsters and a handful of other unions — to the deal in the hopes of splitting a few unions off from the labor movement and winning their support. That would allow House leaders to say that labor is divided on the question, so the party might as well vote yes.
The three areas in which the agreement faces the most resistance are in environmental protections, labor rights, and drug prices. Unions in particular are worried that there are no serious enforcement mechanisms that would require Mexico to raise labor standards and extend protections to union organizers. “I hear a lot of the frontliners want to see it passed,” texted one House Democrat nervous that the deal will get rammed through. “But if the final text doesn’t have real labor and environmental standards, AND WITH REAL ENFORCEMENT, then we shouldn’t even bring it up for a vote.”
The push from centrist Democrats began quietly in the summer, with 14 Democrats signing a letter to House leaders. “We write in support of continued negotiations through the upcoming recess, to ensure a vote on a bipartisan agreement by the end of this year. It is imperative that we reach a negotiated agreement early in the fall,” read the letter signed by Scott Peters, chair of the New Democrat Coalition, the corporate wing of the party, as well as Reps. Collin Allred, Kendra Horn, Haley Stevens, Anthony Brindisi, Joe Cunningham, Lizzie Fletcher, Ben McAdams, Josh Harder, Lou Correa, Sharice Davids, TJ Cox, Susie Lee, and Greg Stanton.
Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and other centrist and conservative Democrats have continued insisting publicly on the need for quick action throughout the summer and fall. “We gotta make this happen,” insisted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., at an event with Trump’s agriculture secretary.
There is currently a working group hashing out revisions to the pact, going back and forth with the White House’s top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Bustos’s staff has signaled to members of Congress concerned that she is trying to give the agreement away that Bustos supports the working group process, but the pressure from Bustos and the moderates to move quickly gives the White House the upper hand in negotiations where they’d otherwise be on the defensive. After all, if Democrats do nothing and win the White House, they would be able to negotiate a much stronger agreement.
“The Democrats and Congress seem to be making progress with the USTR. Now is not the time to do anything but continue to ensure what is passed by the House helps drive down drug prices in the United States,” said Jonathan Kimball of the trade group the Association for Accessible Medicines.
If Democrats do nothing and win the White House, they would be able to negotiate a much stronger agreement.
The trade group, which represents generic drug companies, is pushing against big pharma over provisions that would extend and expand drug company monopolies on patented drugs, blocking cheaper generics from the market. The treaty also expands the definition of what makes a biologic drug, which would put many more medicines off limits to generics for a longer stretch of time, keeping prices high. The treaty would block Congress from doing anything significant legislatively to lower drug prices, even as Democrats ran their 2018 campaign significantly on a promise to lower drug prices.
Unions, meanwhile, are pushing to strengthen provisions that would push Mexico to enact and enforce labor reform and raise wages for Mexican workers, which would make it easier for American workers to compete. Labor officials note that Mexico has neglected to fund its stated commitment to labor reform, and Neal recently traveled to Mexico to try to extract concessions from the Mexican government on enforceability. He came away with a letter of assurance from the Mexican president, which unions have dismissed as unserious.
The Sierra Club has been weighing in on the agreement for the last three years, Ben Beachy told The Intercept, and opposes it in its current form. He directs the group’s “A Living Economy” initiative, which advocates for green economic policy. “The deal as it stands is a pro-polluter deal any way you slice it,” Beachy said. “It not only fails to mention climate change, but would actively contribute to the climate crisis. Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 would perpetuate NAFTA’s outsourcing of pollution and jobs while giving new handouts to fossil fuel corporations.” The group has put out numerous statements regarding concerns that the current deal lacks binding environmental standards, and recently signed a letter along with 110 members of Congress calling for the new deal to address the climate crisis in a meaningful way.
And though Bustos is working in their name, not all front-line Democrats are united on putting through the deal. “We shouldn’t just ram anything through,” said one. “If we don’t get it right, we never get it back.”