Saturday, September 22, 2018
Trump is talking about terminating NAFTA again – this time by striking a new deal with Mexico and leaving Canada out if they won’t agree. Can he?
On September 1, Trump tweeted, “There is no political necessity to keep Canada in the new NAFTA deal. If we don’t make a fair deal for the U.S. after decades of abuse, Canada will be out. Congress should not interfere w/ these negotiations or I will simply terminate NAFTA entirely & we will be far better off…”
This presents a couple of legal questions. First, if Trump dumps Canada, is the remaining agreement still NAFTA? If not, does he have the statutory authority to enter into a new agreement with Mexico?
The answer to both questions is that the President could probably have done either – but he can’t do the latter now, and he could never do either alone.
This post draws on research that I advance in greater detail in “Withdrawing from NAFTA,” forthcoming in Georgetown Law Journal.
The North American Free Trade Agreement, Minus One-Third of North America
Members of Congress have been pretty much in unison in saying they expect any new deal to include Canada, as reported by the conservative paper The Weekly Standard.
Far from “interfer[ence]” with the President’s trade negotiations, Congress has primary constitutional authority over trade deals and a statutory right to guide any trade negotiations that the President engages in.
“To Regulate Commerce with foreign Nations …”
Although the President has the power under the Constitution to speak for the United States in foreign relations, in the trade context that “sole organ” doctrine has to be read in conjunction with the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8, which says that Congress has the power “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”
Where Congress has an enumerated power such as the power to regulate foreign commerce, the implied powers of the President are limited. As articulated in Justice Jackson’s famous concurrence in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the President may not take action “incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress.”
That’s a problem for President Trump here, because Congress has expressly created a detailed system of procedures that the President must follow before, during, and after negotiating trade deals in the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (“TPA”). TPA gives the President the authority to negotiate and enter into trade agreements through July 1, 2121.
It’s important to note what’s happening here: The President doesn’t go out and negotiate trade deals under his own constitutional authority. Instead, because Congress has the authority to regulate foreign commerce, Congress delegates to the President the power to speak for the nation on trade.
That authority is heavily conditioned. First, Section 103(a)(2) says, “[t]he President shall notify Congress of the President’s intention to enter into an agreement under this subsection.”
It’s clear that this notification must occur before negotiations, because Section 104, entitled “Congressional Oversight, Consultations, and Access to Information,” requires the United States Trade Representative to consult with specific congressional committees during negotiations.
Section 105(a) is more specific still, requiring the President to “provide, at least 90 calendar days before initiating negotiations with a country, written notice to Congress of the President’s intention to enter into the negotiations with that country and set forth in the notice the date on which the President intends to initiate those negotiations ….”
The Trump Administration didn’t do this. Instead, in a letterto Congress on May 18, 2017, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said, “I am pleased to notify the Congress that the President intends to initiate negotiations with Canada and Mexico regarding modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).”
All subsequent oversight, consultations, and exchange of information between the two branches – including the development of specific negotiating objectives – related to renegotiation of NAFTA with both Canada and Mexico, not to the creation of a new agreement with Mexico.
Members of Congress seem reluctant to accept one as tantamount to the other. That is effectively a veto, because without implementing legislation by Congress, no trade deal can go into effect, whether new or renegotiated. Procedures for implementing legislation are streamlined but mandatory, as detailed in Section 151 of the amended Trade Act of 1974.
50 Ways to Leave Your Trade Agreement
Technically, though, there may be a way around this to get to an agreement with Mexico that excludes Canada.
Rather than calling the Mexico deal a new bilateral agreement, the Trump Administration might be able to cease to apply NAFTA to Canada – leaving in place a renegotiated NAFTA with only two parties, Mexico and the U.S.
This approach would probably still require some type of congressional approval, so it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. But the type of congressional consultation required is not expressly stated, and it avoids the problem of failure to give notice.
Ceasing to Apply NAFTA to Canada
NAFTA became effective in U.S. law when Congress passed the NAFTA Implementation Act in 1995. Section 109(b) of that Act says,
(b)Termination of NAFTA Status.– During any period in which a country ceases to be a NAFTA country, [the implementing provisions of the Act] shall cease to have effect with respect to such country
Okay, but when does a country “cease to be a NAFTA country”? Section 2 of the Act defines “NAFTA country” to mean:
- Canada for such time as the Agreement is in force with respect to, and the United States applies the Agreement to, Canada; and
- Mexico for such time as the Agreement is in force with respect to, and the United States applies the Agreement to, Mexico.
So if the United States no longer applies the agreement to Canada, then Canada “ceases to be a NAFTA country.”
How convenient! This begs the question, however, of how“the United States” can cease applying the agreement to Canada. Can the President do it with the stroke of a pen? Or does Congress have some say in the matter?
“[A]fter Thorough Consultation with the Congress ….”
Section 2 and Section 109(b) don’t say. But there’s another provision of the Act, Section 101(a)(2), that sheds some light on the question.
In Section 101(a)(2) of the NAFTA Implementation Act, Congress adopted a Statement of Administrative Action (“SAA”) sent by the President along with the text of NAFTA. Among other things, the SAA discussed what would happen if Mexico or Canada withdrew from the side agreements on labor and environment that had been negotiated to accompany NAFTA.
The SAA said, if that happened, “[t]he Administration, after thorough consultation with the congress, would provide notice of withdrawal under the NAFTA, and cease to apply that Agreement, to Mexico or Canada if either country withdraws from a supplemental agreement.”
So at least in the case of withdrawal from a side agreement, United States withdrawal would be accomplished by the President “after thorough consultation with the congress.” It is possible that the President might similarly be able to provide notice to Canada that the United States no longer intends to apply NAFTA to Canada.
It is unclear whether a “thorough consultation with Congress” includes a congressional power to deny the President’s proposed action. But since the Constitution gives Congress the enumerated power to regulate foreign commerce, it seems that the President would not be constitutionally permitted to cease to apply the agreement to Canada if Congress passed a resolution indicating its disapproval of the action.
In my forthcoming article, I summarize the withdrawal authority of the two branches this way:
It is not clear whether the commitment to a “thorough consultation with the congress” applies in all circumstances of United States withdrawal. The SAA does suggest, however, that withdrawal was not viewed as a unilateral prerogative of the President. At least in those circumstances where withdrawal was specifically contemplated, the President and Congress both believed that Congress was to play a role.
Would Congress consent? Some members might find this two-legged NAFTA approach too cute, too clever an effort to cut Congress out of its constitutional powers and oppose it on those grounds. Others may be satisfied on legal grounds but oppose the move to dump Canada for political or economic reasons.
Far from “interfer[ing],” they would be entirely within their rights in doing so, as the branch with the enumerated constitutional power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.”