When the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, it created the largest free trade area in the world at that time. By increasing trade and investment, reducing tariffs and addressing non-tariff barriers, the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States hoped to grow their countries’ economies and raise living standards across the continent.
“NAFTA worked, fundamentally shaping North American economic relations, driving integration between Canada and the United States’ developed economies and Mexico’s developing economy,” says Colin Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat.
More trade with neighbors
In many measurable ways, NAFTA has been a major success. U.S. trade with its two neighbors has grown at a faster rate than its economic activity with the rest of the world. The value of U.S. exports to Mexico reached $231 billion last year, with Michigan ranking third among all U.S. states ($12 billion), and for the Midwest, the cross-border relationship with Canada is especially valuable. Canada serves as the largest export market for nine of the 11 states in this region (Kansas and Nebraska are the lone exceptions).
In states such as Michigan and Ohio, much of this cross-border trade centers on the automotive industry, where cars and their various parts are built via supply chains that send components across the border multiple times on their way to completion.
In fact, intermediate goods (not-yet-completed products) from Canada and Mexico accounted for half of all total imports from these countries. Free trade is essential to preserving these cross-border supply chains. According to the Canadian Embassy, trade with Canada supports close to 9 million jobs in the United States. The Mexico Institute estimates that nearly 5 million jobs in the U.S. depend on trade with Mexico.
But from the start, the three-nation agreement has failed to fully recognize how changes in North American trade would negatively affect certain workers and industries, says Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute.
As some leading lawmakers in Washington, D.C., explore potential changes to the federal tax code, one idea in particular — the creation of a border adjustment tax — is likely to get more and more attention from many Midwest-based firms.
Within a month of President Donald Trump’s taking office, he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for a White House visit in which they jointly agreed to strengthen cooperation on a range of issues, from regulatory reform and cooperation, to border efficiency and security.
“It was important for building a foundation,” Stephen Brereton, Canada’s consul general in Chicago, says of this early meeting of the two federal leaders, “and the government ministers will move much of this forward.”
In part, the February summit between Trudeau and Trump simply reaffirmed a commitment to some ongoing initiatives between Canada and the United States — for example, giving preclearance to cross the border for people who meet certain requirements and better integrating cross-border law enforcement.
Michigan lawmakers are looking for ways to improve the availability, reliability and affordability of electricity in the state’s Upper Peninsula, and one potential solution is to bring in more power from neighboring Ontario.
In a letter this fall, the province backed Michigan’s request for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator to study the idea of extending electric-generating connections across the U.S.-Canada border.
“Interconnections with neighboring jurisdictions provide significant economic and reliability benefits on a daily basis,” wrote Glenn Thibeault, Ontario’s minister of energy, adding that these connections can help provide backup when areas lose their primary generating source.
Decades ago, after a session of Iowa’s part-time Legislature dragged into July, the state’s lawmakers agreed they needed to find a way to prevent that from ever happening again. Their bipartisan solution at the time: Create a series of deadlines for when bills had to advance or die.
Buy America requirements, provisions added to federal legislation to require domestic content when purchasing materials for government-supported projects, are showing up more regularly in major bills passed by the U.S. Congress.
The most recent example of this trend came in September, when the U.S. Senate approved its version of the comprehensive Water Resources Development Act. The legislation would mandate that only American-made iron and steel products be used in drinking water infrastructure projects that receive funding from a federal revolving-loan program.
For supporters such as U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the rationale for these domestic content requirements is this: If taxpayer dollars are going to the projects, why not make sure that the money goes to American workers, foundries and mills?
But in seeking ways to protect and expand domestic job opportunities, Buy America (or “Buy American”) can complicate another part of the U.S. economy — the integrated supply chains that have developed across the U.S. and Canadian borders. In this type of market, a product or piece of equipment may be ready for sale only after crisscrossing the border multiple times. Domestic content requirements, then, can disrupt the way some products are made.