American Trucking Associations (ATA) President and CEO Chris Spear is spending a lot of his strategy time on Mexico and China these days as trade and tariff negotiations with the two countries take a toll on his membership.
During a luncheon speech at the ATA's Economic Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 23, Spear asserted that because there's "no daylight" between trucking and trade, "when you're moving two thirds of the NAFTA surface freight, the upgrade we anticipate in the USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement] is very important to our industry, let alone our customers and the economy."
Spear said that the adjustments made to NAFTA to create the USMCA – which includes improvements to customs clearance – have been significant and are a positive step.
However, "the political environment would suggest otherwise," he said. "You still have a majority of votes to obtain in the House of Representatives. That is the place of focus – it's not in the [Trump] administration, or the Senate. It's [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi's issue, it is no longer Donald Trump's. The future of this agreement will depend on her ability to cultivate the support needed to pass it."
Most of the opposition from House Democrats to the agreement – which so far has been ratified only by Mexico – pertains to labor and environmental issues and ensuring that Mexico has measures in place to properly enforce protections.
In meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Trade Administrator Robert Lighthizer in mid-September, Spear said they spent a lot of time focusing on "deliverables" from the House side of Congress.
"Pinning those [congressional members] down that still haven't taken a position – we're shifting our focus to them and making certain our members and their employee base are very aggressively targeting" those Democrats who have yet to take a position on the agreement, Spear said.
Spear believes an amended agreement will be submitted "within the next few days" to the House chamber. Once that happens, a vote will happen sooner rather than later, he said, before Democrats have a chance to lose their political leverage over the agreement.
"The more you creep into the 2020 election cycle, the more it becomes a bigger win for Donald Trump. There's concern from the Democrat ranks in the House that he will take credit. My response is, of course he will, he takes credit for everything, including stuff he generally doesn't do. That's what you do when you're President of the United States."
Regarding the China tariffs, Spear acknowledged that the "blunt instrument" approach being taken by President Trump is causing pain for the trucking industry. "It's not just what you move, but the equipment that you purchase. [Tariffs on] steel and aluminum is certainly reflected in the trailers and tractors that you're purchasing. The pain is getting passed on not only to our carriers but to our customers, and it's very measurable."
But Spear insists that the ATA will resist strategies used by other associations, including the National Retail Federation (NRF), that are producing advertisements that blatantly oppose Trump's tariff war.
"There is no gain in my opinion in attacking this president's strategy," Spear said. "We all understand it's unorthodox. But I've seen those that have done so don't generally get invited back for meetings, and don't have a seat [at the table] when decisions are made. Our strategy has been a little different. We do not run ads that are public, we don't attack this president and this administration outright – we do it behind the scenes, behind closed doors, at the White House, at the agencies, and on Capitol Hill, where it matters most."
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