The Trump administration formally began its long-promised renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Thursday, sending Congress a letter that starts the clock on a 90-day waiting period before U.S. negotiators can sit down with their counterparts from Canada and Mexico.
The letter, signed by newly minted U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, outlines the administration’s goal of modernizing the pact and pledges to work "closely and transparently" with Congress throughout the process.
Lighthizer noted that the administration’s primary goal in renegotiating the more than 23-year-old agreement will be to update it, including by adding provisions on digital trade, intellectual property rights and labor and environmental standards, which he called "an afterthought in NAFTA."
The letter does not detail specific negotiating objectives. Those aren’t due to Congress until 30 days before the start of talks. It notes an interest in adding stronger enforcement provisions.
But the lack of specifics is notable, because the White House sent a more detailed eight-page draft notice to Capitol Hill in late March that included what the administration was looking for in nearly 20 different areas.
"This is an important day for the Trump administration," Lighthizer told reporters on a press call. "Today, President [Donald] Trump is fulfilling one of his key promises to the American people: to renegotiate NAFTA to get a better deal for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses."
With the 90-day clock beginning today, official talks are likely to begin in late August.
While the administration aims to help the manufacturing industry in the renegotiation as President Donald Trump promised during the campaign, Lighthizer emphasized that the U.S. would not take steps that would hurt other industries that benefit from exports.
"NAFTA has been relatively successful for Americans across several sectors, including agriculture, investment services and energy," Lighthizer said. "However, other sectors like manufacturing — particularly with regards to Mexico — have fallen behind."
In a bid to make the transition to a new deal "seamless," the administration is hoping to keep NAFTA a three-way agreement, Lighthizer said, though he did not rule out the possibility of it breaking into two smaller pacts.
"Many of these negotations will be bilateral and many of the issues are bilateral, but our hope is that we end up with a structure similar to what we have now," he said. "If that proves to be impossible, then we’ll move in a different direction."
Lighthizer also declined to comment directly on whether the threat of withdrawing from the pact was still on the table, saying only that the administration was "going to give renegotiation a good strong shot."
The dearth of details has drawn concerns from some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, who requested more detail on some points and noted they had wanted their voices to be reflected in the letter itself.
On the other side of the aisle, Republican lawmakers are praising the administration for getting the ball rolling on renegotiation, and they agree with the notion that the pact should be modernized — though they are also careful to warn against changes that would disrupt supply chains or hurt industries that currently benefit from NAFTA.
“We look forward to working with the administration to strengthen the agreement in a seamless way and ensure that we retain the current benefits for American workers, farmers, and businesses,” House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said in a statement.
When U.S. officials do sit down with their Canadian and Mexican counterparts later this year, they will not have much time, as top Mexican officials have said they hope to finish by the end of the year because of presidential elections taking place in mid-2018.
Asked on Thursday whether that timeline was possible, Lighthizer responded: “We’ll see. That certainly is our hope. I know the president wants to get this done as quickly as possible.”