Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
After a rancorous U.S. midterm election period, Congress and state legislatures are starting their new sessions.
Nearly one-fifth of the state legislators are newly elected, while Congress’s freshman class numbers more than 100. That means it’s time for Canada to re-engage with U.S. lawmakers – after all, we have a lot at stake and a lot of politicians to remind about our mutual dependence.
Our alliance with the United States is fundamentally about political and diplomatic relationships. And building relationships is vital to Canadian interests, especially with a new crop of legislators who haven’t yet been infected by the hardy perennials of “Buy America” thinking, which can be hard to weed out later.
Nothing is assured. That includes the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which was signed at the end of November to much fanfare, but cannot actually be sealed until implementing legislation is passed in all three countries. The U.S. Trade Promotion Authority mandates an up-or-down vote in both chambers of Congress. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, too, might not support the proposed USMCA; most House Democrats voted against the original North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, even with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. While Donald Trump has threatened to set a six-month countdown clock on the original NAFTA deal as soon as he introduces the implementing bill, thinking that this will leverage congressional passage, we can’t assume that his efforts will work.
Canada needs to continue the Team Canada advocacy effort that helped get them the USMCA deal in the first place by deploying federal ministers, premiers, members of Parliament and provincial legislators to meet their U.S. counterparts once again, and continuing to remind them of the importance of Canadian trade and investment to their districts and states in creating and sustaining jobs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s California district, for instance, exports more than US$637-million in goods and services to Canada. An estimated 1.2 million jobs in her home state – with more than 2,770 of those in her San Francisco district – depend on Canadian-owned companies. We need to keep reminding her of this and make the same detailed pitch to every member of Congress.
The new Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history, and women now account for 127 of the 535 members. Given the creation of the Trump-Trudeau inspired Canada-United States Council for Women Entrepreneurs & Business Leaders, it would also be wise for an all-party delegation of women to meet their counterparts, primarily to build relationships but also to help advance the Council’s plan for jointly expanding female-owned business and enabling their access to capital.
In the coming days, governors in 39 states – either new or re-elected – will be taking their oath of office, too. Canada’s premiers need to call on the new governors and re-engage with the re-elected, while our consuls general should attend the swearing-in ceremonies, which are rich in networking opportunities. I remember that, as a consul general myself, I met two future California state secretaries at then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inauguration in 2003.
February’s annual national governors’ conference in Washington also offers a chance to advocate for smart U.S. infrastructure spending from Mr. Trump’s proposed trillion-dollar “Building a Stronger America” initiative. Better transportation – such as roads, railways, ports, grids and pipelines – helps all North Americans. However, there remains no procurement chapter in the new USMCA, even though the premiers successfully achieved this in 2010 by negotiating a reciprocity agreement on procurement. By opening cross-order competition, both Canada and the United States. will get better value from procurement dollars.
Our Washington embassy, located just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol building, is a natural place for premiers and governors to get together. When Frank McKenna was our ambassador, then-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – father of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – jammed on his guitar, while Nova Scotia-born country singer George Canyon and Mr. McKenna joined in on tambourines, in front of a group of Canadian and Washington movers and shakers.
Canada has an advantage over all other countries, thanks to the deep network of connections that go beyond trade and weave themselves into ties of family and friendship. Annual Gallup polling consistently demonstrates that the United States ranks Canada as its favourite country: 94 per cent of Americans like us, according to the most recent survey.
We have both position and opportunity to advance our objectives with the U.S. legislative class of 2019. We need to act – never forgetting that we are most effective when we come together as Team Canada.