Wallach says consumer groups, Democrats not opposed to USMCA, praises Lighthizer
Consumer groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill are not opposed to the proposed new U.S.-Mexican-Canada free trade agreement, but want to change parts of it, Lori Wallach, the director of Global Trade Watch, a division of Public Citizen, said during a panel discussion on trade at the Consumer Federation of America Food Policy Conference on Friday.
“We are not against this agreement right now. We are trying to get it improved,” Wallach said. “A lot of Democrats are in the same position.”
Usually at this point in the consideration of a trade agreement, “you have warring camps. In this case you have groups that want to fix it,” said Wallach, who has been noted for her opposition to past trade agreements.
The biggest objection, Wallach said, is the expansions of monopolies for big pharmaceutical companies.
Wallach said that in President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, “the worst things for food did not end up in it,” but she criticized the agreement for not ”fixing” the “equivalence“ system of food safety agreements that she said puts a “ceiling” on food safety, or restore country-of-origin labeling for red meat.
Wallach maintained that imports have led to food safety problems, but she did not offer any specific examples to make her point.
She also said that Trump’s appointment of Robert Lighthizer as U.S. trade representative is “the best thing” that has happened in this situation.
Lighthizer “knows the rules,” Wallach said.
“I disagree with almost everything that comes out of this administration but their focus on China is not wrong,” Wallach said. But she added she “would be more trusting if the trade representative were totally in charge of that.”
Getting China’s policies to change, Wallach said, is an enormous economic and political challenge. The way Trump has gone about it is not strategic or nuanced, she said.
Speaking more broadly, Wallach said the problem with trade agreements is that they include provisions that result in lower wages and lost jobs and small farms. Consumer groups “oppose corporate advisers working with” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative,” a reference to USTR’s system of advisory committees.
Other members of the panel were also critical of the administration’s trade policies.
David Orden, a professor at Virginia Tech, said that Trump’s unilateral use of national security to justify tariffs on steel and aluminum had done “tremendous damage to U.S. leadership.”
The last three years, he said, have been spent “in a contentious argument over renegotiation of NAFTA. It is better in some ways, worse in others. We have lost opportunities to open up new markets.”
The Trans Pacific Partnership, he noted, ”has gone ahead without the United States.”
Orden, one of the authors of a paper on Chinese domestic agricultural subsidies, also pointed out that the United States has won a World Trade Organization case against Chinese subsidies, but that the case could be moot if China appeals it and the United States continues to object to the appointment of judges to the WTO body that would consider appeals.
William Reinsch, the former president of the National Foreign Trade Council and now with the Center for Strategic and International Affairs, noted that trade conflicts are not new and tend to last a long time.
Lesley McNitt of the National Corn Growers Association emphasized that, while the general economy has been doing well, the farm economy “is not doing great.”
The corn growers’ No. 1 priority is to get the USMCA approved, McNitt said, but the conflict with China looms large in farmers’ minds.
The China conflict has been worse for soybeans than for corn, but most corn growers also grow soybeans, she said. The big hit for corn growers, she said, has been China’s retaliatory tariffs on ethanol.
McNitt also noted that, while the Trump administration is pursuing negotiations with China, since Trump withdrew from TPP other countries have gained leverage with Japan.
“Tariffs have really, really hurt. We are falling behind right now. I want to get back on offense,” said McNitt.