Officials hope to pin down Trump admin on NAFTA

BROWNSVILLE — If there’s one word to describe the Trump administration’s intentions regarding North American trade, that word is “uncertainty.”

So says Tiffany Melvin, president of the North American Strategy for Competitiveness (NASCO), a tri-national coalition of businesses, governments and educational institutions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, focused on making the North American supply chain more competitive in the global marketplace.

Melvin was in town Monday to deliver a luncheon presentation hosted by the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority at Rancho Viejo Resort & Country Club.

NASCO’s many initiatives seeking to strengthen cross-border trade include closing a widespread skilled-workforce gap; educating a largely uninformed public about the importance of international trade in their daily lives; and working with federal, provincial and state governments to “harmonize” freight regulations and policies domestically and internationally.

Specific initiatives include establishing a North American common workforce training program geared to companies’ needs and accommodating employees who may work in all three countries; and creating a “single window” system to streamline the movement of goods across borders — the United States being the worst offender.

“We have 48 different agencies with authority to clear goods across the border,” Melvin said.

That means shippers have to enter the exact same information over and over for multiple agencies. Having the information entered at a single point and then distributed to the various agencies would greatly improve efficiency, she said.

NASCO, founded in 1994 as the I-35 Corridor Coalition, is used to making recommendations to the U.S. secretary of commerce based on input from NASCO membership, though the group hasn’t formed a relationship with the new administration since it only recently got a commerce secretary, Melvin said.

Trump’s nominee, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, was confirmed Feb. 28. Ross so far remains “an unknown quantity,” Melvin said, though she was scheduled to speak with a high-level career Commerce Department employee today (March 7) for clues to the Trump administration’s actual stance on North American trade, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA was one of Trump’s favorite targets during the election campaign. He also threatened many times to impose stiff tariffs on good imported to the United States in response to what he views as a trade imbalance.

“We don’t know what the environment is,” Melvin said. “We’re doing our best to get a grip on it.”

NASCO also recently formed a NAFTA task force, which Melvin chairs. While it’s possible NAFTA could stand tweaking, the coalition does not want to see the parts that have worked so well over the years destroyed. It’s a mistake to blame trade agreements for disappearing jobs, since technology is the main culprit, Melvin said.

Ideally, the new administration will “keep an open mind and not go backwards” on issues vital to the companies that comprise North America’s integrated supply chain, she said. Meanwhile, Melvin expressed hope that today’s call with the Commerce Department would shed some light on what NASCO’s coalition members can expect from Washington going forward.

“The objective is to just find out what the person knows about the agenda of the secretary of commerce and the Department and maybe some time frames, just to get an update on the state of play, because no one really has heard anything. … There’s a lot of confusion right now as to how to best negotiate with Trump. It’s very uncertain as to how all this plays out.”