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The 115th Congress faces policy issues related to the Trump Administration’s renegotiation and modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA negotiations were first launched in 1992 under President H. W. Bush, who signed the agreement in December 1992, and continued under President Bill Clinton, who negotiated additional side agreements on labor and the environment. President Clinton signed the agreement into law on December 8 1993, (P.L. 103-182) and NAFTA entered into force on January 1, 1994. It is particularly significant because it was the most comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) negotiated at the time, contained several groundbreaking provisions, and was the first of a new generation of U.S. FTAs later negotiated. Congress played a major role during its consideration and, after contentious and comprehensive debate, ultimately approved legislation to implement the agreement.

NAFTA established trade liberalization commitments that set new rules and disciplines for future FTAs on issues important to the United States, including intellectual property rights protection, services trade, dispute settlement procedures, investment, labor, and the environment. NAFTA’s market-opening provisions gradually eliminated nearly all tariff and most nontariff barriers on goods produced and traded within North America. At the time of NAFTA, average applied U.S. duties on imports from Mexico were 2.07%, while U.S. businesses faced average tariffs of 10%, in addition to nontariff and investment barriers, in Mexico. The U.S.-Canada FTA had been in effect since 1989. Trade among NAFTA partners has tripled since the agreement entered into force, forming a more integrated North American market.

The Trump Administration has made NAFTA renegotiation and modernization a prominent initial priority of its trade policy. President Trump has viewed the agreement as the “worst trade deal,” and has stated that he may seek to withdraw from the agreement. He has focused on the trade deficit with Mexico as a major reason for his critique. On May 18, 2017, the Trump Administration sent a 90-day notification to Congress of its intent to begin talks to renegotiate NAFTA, as required by the 2015 Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) (P.L. 114-26). Negotiations started August 16, 2017. Stating they are committed to an expeditious process, negotiators plan to have a series of seven rounds at three-week intervals for a conclusion by the end of 2017 or early 2018. The fourth round of negotiations began at the time this report was printed. The final text of the agreement will not be released until after negotiations are concluded. NAFTA parties have agreed that the information exchanged in the context of the negotiations, such as the negotiating text, proposals of each government, and other materials related to the substance of the negotiations, must remain confidential.

Congress will likely continue to be a major participant in shaping and potentially considering an updated NAFTA. Key issues for Congress in regard to the renegotiation or modernization include the constitutional authority of Congress over international trade, its role in revising or withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. negotiating objectives, the impact on U.S. industries and the U.S. economy, the negotiating objectives of Canada and Mexico, and the impact on broader relations with Canada and Mexico. The outcome of these negotiations will have implications for the future direction of U.S. trade policy under President Trump.

NAFTA renegotiation may provide opportunities to address issues not covered in the original text. Technology and industrial production processes have changed significantly since it was negotiated. The widespread use of the Internet has affected economic activities and the use of e-commerce, for example. A modernization could incorporate elements of more recent U.S. FTAs, such as digital and services trade and enhanced IPR protection. Many U.S. manufacturers, services providers, and agricultural producers oppose efforts to eliminate NAFTA and ask that the Trump Administration strive to “do no harm” in the negotiations because they have much to lose if the United States pulls out of the agreement. Other groups contend that NAFTA should be rewritten to include stronger and more enforceable labor protections, provisions on currency manipulation, and stricter rules of origin.


Suggested Citation
Villarreal, M. A., & Fergusson, I. F. (2017). NAFTA renegotiation and modernization (CRS Report R44981). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.