Conservative leaders delivered a letter to President Donald Trump Thursday morning that called on his administration to fix NAFTA through a proposal which would also give Congress oversight on major regulations.
The letter, signed by 24 leaders of prominent conservative organizations, backed a recent proposal from Republican senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Cory Gardner (Colo.), and Steve Daines (Mont.). The three senators are encouraging the administration to seek to add a "competitiveness" chapter to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), changing negotiators' focus from increasing tariffs to reducing barriers to American competition.
"Rather than pursuing a defensive strategy that focuses solely on what other countries are doing to us, we need to develop a more comprehensive, offensive U.S. strategy to strengthen our economy from within, to more effectively counter the harmful trade policies of countries like China," the senators write.
Central to the senators' proposal is using NAFTA to indirectly implement the terms of the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act in the language of the treaty itself. If implemented, REINS would require Congressional approval of any new federal regulation that costs more than $100 million. Such regulations can currently be passed unilaterally by executive branch agencies, allowing for the basically unchecked expansion of the regulatory state.
REINS has been a key policy goal of Congressional Republicans for years, and has passed the House several times, but has regularly stalled in the Senate due to the inability to overcome a Democratic filibuster. The key insight of Cruz, Gardner, and Daines's proposal is that, if REINS is included in NAFTA, it can avoid the filibuster entirely, passing the Senate with only fifty votes.
"We specifically urge inclusion in the competitiveness chapter of the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would require costly new regulations to be individually approved by Congress before they could take effect," they wrote.
"The REINS Act is still vitally needed because if the regulatory process is not fixed, your highly successful pro-growth deregulatory efforts could prove ephemeral, reversed by the next Democratic administration that could put all the job-crushing Obama regulations back in place—and worse."
President Trump has been a strong proponent of REINS, promising on the campaign trail that he would both sign it if approved by Congress, and work hard to get it passed in the meantime.
"The monstrosity that is the Federal Government with its pages and pages of rules and regulations has been a disaster for the American economy and job growth. The REINS Act is one major step toward getting our government under control," Trump said in 2015.
Importantly, this means that REINS is a point of consensus between Trump and conservative leaders, including congressional Republicans, the latter of whom have shied from Trump's push for greater trade protectionism.
Negotiations over NAFTA have been ongoing since August of last year, in line with Trump's campaign promise to reconsider the deal, which he viewed as harmful to American workers. Trump has threatened to terminate the free trade agreement if a more equitable deal cannot be reached. An eighth round of talks were cancelled earlier this week, leaving the state of the transcontinental partnership in ongoing limbo.
The Trump administration has articulated its renegotiation goals primarily in reducing America's trade deficit with Canada and Mexico. Such a focus on trade deficits has been concerning to free-trade supporting Conservatives such as Phil Kerpen, President of American Commitment and a signatory of the Thursday letter to Trump.
"I think it potentially puts the NAFTA negotiations on a much better playing field from a free market perspective, because we can add a focus on enhancing U.S. competitiveness by locking in the gains that this administration has made on things like regulatory reform and permitting reform, instead of focusing entirely on the trade policies that conservatives are critical of," Kerpen told the Free Beacon.
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not return a request for comment on whether or not it expects Cruz, Gardner, and Daines's proposal to be included in future negotiation.