- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

President Trump’s top trade negotiator outlined a tougher line on enforcing U.S. deals and told a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday that the administration has no hard deadline for completing the renegotiation of the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The Senate Finance Committee hearing attracted a standing-room-only crowd as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer gave his first public testimony on Mr. Trump’s promised radical shift in U.S. trade policy, a central plank of Mr. Trump’s winning presidential campaign last year.

After nearly canceling the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement altogether, Mr. Trump in May agreed to new talks with Mexico and Canada over a deal Mr. Trump contends has cost the U.S. thousands of jobs. Mr. Lighthizer signaled that the administration will take its time getting a new agreement and told lawmakers he hopes the revised accord will serve as a model for bilateral trade deals with other nations.

Mr. Lighthizer said the Trump administration would focus on bilateral trade deals with other nations after renegotiating NAFTA. He said he hopes to have a NAFTA deal finalized by the end of the year, although he acknowledged that many analysts believe that timeline is unrealistic.

“The only deadline we have is that we’re going to get a good agreement, one that is transformative and a very high-standard agreement,” Mr. Lighthizer said in the packed hearing room.

Mr. Lighthizer, a trade attorney who served in the Reagan administration, presented four key trade policy goals: renegotiating NAFTA, strengthening enforcement of existing trade deals, opening markets to U.S. exports and reducing the trade deficit. USTR is likely to play a key role in Mr. Trump’s economic agenda, a role reflected in the 6 percent budget increase Mr. Trump has proposed for the trade office in his fiscal 2018 budget.

Senators presented a variety of concerns about NAFTA, including the need to protect U.S. agricultural markets and to account for the digital economy and intellectual property rights. Acknowledging that provisions in NAFTA for online intellectual property protections and the digital economy were lacking, Mr. Lighthizer promised to press those issues in the upcoming talks.

Mr. Lighthizer also promised to address currency manipulation, a prime concern of Mr. Trump, in the NAFTA talks. Although he said neither Mexico nor Canada is suspected of manipulating their currency to boost exports, Mr. Lighthizer said a provision on currency in the overhauled NAFTA could establish a model agreement for negotiations with countries that do.

He also promised to investigate Canadian dairy industry practices and Mexican steel industry requirements that may be harming U.S. farmers and manufacturers.

Mr. Trump on the campaign trail repeatedly promised to target China, which annually runs the biggest bilateral trade surpluses with the U.S. But he has backed off on a campaign pledge to censure Beijing as a currency manipulator, citing what he said was the need for China’s cooperation in containing North Korea.

But several lawmakers said they remained concerned about China because of the state manipulation of the economy and practices that harm U.S. technology companies. Mr. Lighthizer promised to address them in upcoming trade negotiations.

Since taking office, Mr. Trump has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim nations and vowed to renegotiate — or even abolish — NAFTA. The Commerce Department under Mr. Trump instituted a 20 percent tariff on Canadian softwood lumber in April, bringing a strong protest from Ottawa.

Some U.S. business and agricultural groups have watched the Trump administration’s NAFTA moves with concern, fearing that markets opened by the deal could be affected in any renegotiation.

“Exiting NAFTA and certain changes, could lead to tariffs on U.S. wheat and threaten to undermine the long-standing, loyal relationship U.S. wheat farmers have built with Mexico’s wheat buyers and food industry,” David Schemm, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, told the Senate panel in written testimony.

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