Politics

Congress will 'stand up' to Trump if he tries to end NAFTA, U.S. lawmaker says

While the prospect of NAFTA’s demise may be causing some hand wringing as Canada, the United States and Mexico renegotiate the trade deal, Brian Higgins, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives says NAFTA won’t go down without a fight in Congress.

'The president is sometimes ignorant of the United States constitution … or at least indifferent to it'

U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from New York, serves on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in the U.S. Congress. (Nick Wass/NHLI via Getty Images)

While the prospect of NAFTA's demise may be causing some hand wringing as Canada, the United States and Mexico renegotiate the trade deal, Brian Higgins, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, says NAFTA won't go down without a fight in Congress.

Higgins, a Democrat who represents New York's 26th District and sits on the influential House Ways and Means committee, told CBC Radio's The House that U.S. President Donald Trump's positions on NAFTA do not entirely represent the U.S. government.

Trump has been on the offensive in NAFTA renegotiations, with what many consider to be aggressive and unpredictable demands.

Along with suggesting Canada and the U.S. nix Mexico from NAFTA if the talks go awry, he also proposed a "sunset clause" that would terminate the agreement in five years without the approval of all three countries — a suggestion Canada and Mexico, as well as the business community, oppose.

Trump has also openly mused about simply tearing up the deal.

But Higgins said the U.S. government was built with checks and balances in place so that one level of government can't impose its will on another.

"The president is sometimes ignorant of the United States constitution … or at least indifferent to it," Higgins said.

Congress likely has more authority on trade agreements than the president, he said, and needs to stand up in its role as a branch of the U.S. government.

Higgins added that while NAFTA renegotiations may look chaotic, those checks and balances aren't going to change.

"Everything coming out of this administration is spontaneous and incoherent…[but] I think the concerns about the chaotic nature of what is occurring right now are somewhat premature," he said.

"We just need to take a steady, rational approach."

'Bilateral understanding'

Higgins dismissed the idea that a new NAFTA could just include Canada and the U.S.

Instead, he said the two countries are in the position to influence the outcome of NAFTA renegotiations.

"Canadian and U.S. relations have always been very, very good. I think a bilateral, not agreement, but an understanding between the United States and Canada should drive any new NAFTA agreement," Higgins said.

"The leverage of Canada with 36 million people and the United States with 324 million people should determine, ultimately, what a new NAFTA looks like."

This would include discussions about labour standards, environmental protection and human rights in Mexico, which have been sticking points among Canadian and American negotiators.

The clout of the two countries could be used to raise standards in Mexico to match those in Canada and the U.S., Higgins said.

Canada looking at 'alternative proposals'

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne doesn't believe NAFTA talks are doomed, but says Canada is keeping its options open.

"It's never going to be easy. This was not meant to be an easy process," he said in an interview with The House.

International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne says Canada continues to pursue trade deals with other partners as it renegotiates NAFTA. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Champagne said the prime minister has been engaging with the presidents of the U.S. and Mexico, and that Canada wants to be at the NAFTA table offering "alternative proposals."

He added that Mexico is an important trade relationship for Canada, one the government is focused on nurturing. Canada is also looking at opening markets in South America, Asia Pacific and India, with the Trans Pacific Partnership as a priority, he said.

"There's never been a better time to diversify," Champagne said.

"So whilst we are putting a lot of thought and effort and energy on making sure that we modernize NAFTA, the world around us is not standing still."

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