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Arizona Senator Wins NAFTA Commitments, Releases Hold on USTR Nominee

Senator Jeff Flake, from trade-sensitive Arizona, said he had secured commitments from the Trump administration to avoid “ill-advised seasonal or regional” triggers on food imports as part of the new NAFTA. In return, he has released his “hold” on the White House nominee for chief U.S. agricultural trade negotiator. “There seems to be a clear path for Gregg Doud to be confirmed as chief agricultural negotiator,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts.

At the urging of Florida fruit and vegetable growers, the White House had proposed the inclusion in NAFTA of trade protections for seasonal growers against surges of competing crops from Mexico or Canada. Growers from the U.S. Southeast say current rules offer little protection because they are based on annual figures, which dilutes the impact of a flood of imports at the same time their crops hit the market. Western growers have worried that Mexico, a major source of produce during the winter, could use the same provisions to block U.S. goods.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer lamented at the NAFTA talks in Montreal this week that none of his deputy negotiators had been confirmed by the Senate due to holds placed by Republicans and Democrats on the four nominees, including Doud. Holds are an informal but respected practice that allows senators to suspend action on nominations and legislation. In mid-January, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said he would block USTR nominees until Lighthizer listened to his concerns on trade and his state.

Separately, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is blocking a vote on Bill Northey of Iowa, President Trump’s nominee to run the USDA’s crop support and land stewardship programs, as leverage with Midwestern senators in an effort to change the ethanol mandate. The dispute started last October. There has been no recent movement by Cruz to drop the “unfair hold,” Iowa Senator Charles Grassley said early this week. If confirmed, Northey would be the most consequential of the USDA’s seven undersecretaries.

In an announcement, Flake said Lighthizer had agreed to meet with Arizona stakeholders who would be hurt by the administration’s proposal. In addition, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, who would have a leading role in Senate consideration of a NAFTA agreement, said he will keep Flake’s concerns in mind. “I am committed to working with you to find a solution to your concerns and to achieve a modernized NAFTA that will benefit all American producers, service providers, and consumers,” said Hatch in a letter.

“While certainly there are areas in the NAFTA agreement ripe for modernization, adding ill-advised seasonal or regional components to existing trade remedies would lead to needless trade restrictions, devastating economic consequences, and likely retaliation,” said Flake. “I will continue to work toward a solution with the administration and Chairman Hatch as well as utilizing additional procedural tools at my disposal.”

Arizona is a leading point of entry for U.S. produce imports, “and trade is a key contributor to the state’s economy,” said The Packer, a trade publication, last November, when Flake blocked action on Doud’s nomination. In an updated summary of U.S. objectives on NAFTA, released at roughly the same time, the administration said it would “seek a separate domestic industry provision for perishable and seasonal products in AD/CVD proceedings,” using the abbreviation for anti-dumping and countervailing duties. They are used to offset unfairly priced imports.

“I am pleased that assurances have been given and there seems to be a clear path for Gregg Doud to be confirmed as chief agricultural negotiator,” said Senator Roberts in a tweet. “As the poster child[ren] of what successful trade agreements can do for the American economy, our farmers and ranchers have gone too long without a voice at the trade table during these uncertain times.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association made clear its position on Doud’s approval by putting his photo on a mock missing-person flyer, which it then distributed at sites that included the most recent round of NAFTA negotiations. The group applauded Flake’s decision to remove his hold. “With talks continuing on NAFTA, the Korea-U.S. trade agreement, and access to many other markets still up in the air, it’s imperative that the U.S. Senate now move as quickly as possible to confirm Doud’s nomination,” said NCBA President Craig Uden.

To read Hatch’s letter to Flake, click here.

The USTR summary of U.S. goals at NAFTA is available here.

To view the NCBA’s missing-person poster for Gregg Doud, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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