NAFTA at 20: Overview and Trade Effects

Source: M. Angeles Villarreal, Ian F. Fergusson, Congressional Research Service (CRS), CRS Report, R42965, April 11, 2014

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) entered into force on January 1, 1994. The agreement was signed by President George H.W. Bush on December 17, 1992, and approved by Congress on November 20, 1993. The NAFTA Implementation Act was signed into law by President William J. Clinton on December 8, 1993 (P.L. 103-182). The overall economic impact of NAFTA is difficult to measure since trade and investment trends are influenced by numerous other economic variables, such as economic growth, inflation, and currency fluctuations. The agreement may have accelerated the trade liberalization that was already taking place, but many of these changes may have taken place with or without an agreement. Nevertheless, NAFTA is significant because it was the most comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA) negotiated at the time and contained several groundbreaking provisions. A legacy of the agreement is that it has served as a template or model for the new generation of FTAs that the United States later negotiated and it also served as a template for certain provisions in multilateral trade negotiations as part of the Uruguay Round.

The 113th Congress faces numerous issues related to international trade. Canada and Mexico are the first and third largest U.S. trading partners, respectively. With the two countries participating in the negotiations to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement among the United States and 11 other countries, policy issues related to NAFTA continue to be of interest for Congress. If an agreement is concluded, it could affect the rules and market access commitments governing North American trade and investment since NAFTA entered into force. A related trade policy issue in which the effects of NAFTA may be explored is the possible renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA; formerly known as “fast-track authority”) to provide expedited procedures for the consideration of bills to implement trade agreements.

NAFTA was controversial when first proposed, mostly because it was the first FTA involving two wealthy, developed countries and a developing country. The political debate surrounding the agreement was divisive with proponents arguing that the agreement would help generate thousands of jobs and reduce income disparity in the region, while opponents warned that the agreement would cause huge job losses in the United States as companies moved production to Mexico to lower costs. In reality, NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters. The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest, primarily because trade with Canada and Mexico account for a small percentage of U.S. GDP. However, there were worker and firm adjustment costs as the three countries adjusted to more open trade and investment among their economies.

The rising number of bilateral and regional trade agreements throughout the world and the rising presence of China in Latin America could have implications for U.S. trade policy with its NAFTA partners. Some proponents of open and rules-based trade maintain that a further deepening of economic relations with Canada and Mexico will help promote a common trade agenda with shared values and generate economic growth. Some opponents argue that the agreement has caused worker displacement and that NAFTA needs to be reopened. One possible way of doing this is through the proposed TPP. The ongoing TPP negotiations, launched in the fall of 2008, may not result in a reopening of NAFTA, but could alter some of the rules and market access commitments governing North American trade and investment.