While officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico try to hammer out a new North American Free Trade Agreement, lobbyists in Washington are using the deal’s rewrite to advance a broad legislative agenda to make it easier for U.S. firms to build factories, move cargo and export coal.

The strategy exploits the fast-track authority that allows presidents to negotiate big trade deals without having to worry about Congress tinkering around the edges. Under that authority, legislation to implement a trade deal can pass the House and Senate on a simple majority vote, without amendments or filibusters.

That means a NAFTA bill could lead to the enactment of what is essentially a big business wishlist of regulatory reforms and other policies too ambitious or politically sensitive to clear Congress in a piecemeal fashion.

The tactic could enable passage of an array of legislative proposals, including regulatory overhaul bills stymied in the Senate and measures to expand workforce development programs. Potential changes also could include setting ceilings on the cost of new regulations and making additional spectrum available for commercial use.

Adam White, who directs George Mason University’s Center for the Study of the Administrative State, says the approach could improve the U.S. trade position by strengthening competitiveness from within and enticing businesses to invest in the country.

“In some ways, that involves lowering barriers to trade abroad, but sometimes it involves lowering the barriers that we have created for ourselves,” White said.

Critics say it uses America’s trade deficit as an excuse to short-circuit regulations such as environmental analysis at a time when climate change, shrinking biodiversity and other issues demand thorough analysis.

“It’s the opposite of the careful deliberation that needs to be done,” said Pat Gallagher, director of the Sierra Club’s environmental law program. “Last time I checked, the economy has been booming.”

Trump on March 14 formally asked Congress to extend his fast-track authority over trade deals for three years.

Advocates of the NAFTA plan found support from a trio of GOP senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana and Cory Gardner of Colorado. The senators touted the plan in a letter to Trump last week, describing it as an unprecedented opportunity “to lock into law” major elements of the president’s economic development plan.

 

Dlouhy writes for Bloomberg.