With negotiations to modernize NAFTA coming to a head, Texas Republican Ted Cruz and some of his conservative Senate allies have been pushing the Trump administration to use the trade pact as a way of getting around Democratic objections to the GOP’s broader deregulation agenda.
But despite a GOP consensus on reducing business regulation of all kinds, Cruz’s gambit appears to be getting little buy-in from Republican leaders on trade — including some key Texas Republicans — who worry that it could blow up a final trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
At the core of the dispute is Cruz’s proposal to link the ongoing NAFTA talks to a separate regulatory plan known as the REINS Act, which would require Congressional approval of any new regulation that would impose more than a $100 million cost to the economy.
Though popular among Republicans bent on reducing what they see as burdensome regulations on environmental, workplace, and consumer affairs, inserting the REINS Act in NAFTA could introduce a new level of uncertainty in negotiations that some lawmakers already consider politically fraught.
Among the skeptics is Texas Republican John Cornyn, the No. 2 GOP leader in the Senate, who on April 26 called it a “strange fit.”
Another is U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and an influential GOP voice on trade. A spokeswoman for Brady told the Chronicle that Brady “has been a long supporter of the REINS Act and other legislation to reduce burdensome regulations, but is not convinced that tying this bill to an international trade agreement is the right vehicle for enactment.”
Nevertheless Cruz, backed by a coalition of conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Freedom Works, has been pushing the idea in television appearances, behind the scenes, and in a recent letter to the White House, where he argues that that president’s authority under current Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) rules would mean that Republicans could pass their regulatory agenda in NAFTA and avoid an expected Democratic filibuster.
“Most importantly, taking this approach means that you could ratify your improved version of NAFTA before November of this year,” Cruz wrote in a letter to Trump last month. “And under the Trade Promotion Authority Act’s expedited procedures, we can avoid a filibuster and pass implementing legislation in the Senate with only 50 votes.
“No alternative this year,” Cruz continued, “has so much promise to lock into law most elements of your economic development plan and timely realization of the economic benefits it will bring.”
Republicans currently have a 51-49 majority in the Senate, a narrow edge that they have to protect in the November midterm elections.
The REINS Act — an acronym for the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act — was originally proposed as a Tea Party measure more than a decade ago. Several versions have been passed in the House, but it has never gotten through the Senate, where Democrats have enough members to block it in procedural moves requiring 60 votes.
Cruz’s letter also was signed by Republicans Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana.
Although the Trump administration has prided itself on reducing regulation through administrative acts and orders, more thoroughgoing GOP reforms like the REINS Act need Congressional action.