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NAFTA talks to proceed even if U.S. government shuts down: report

by Kelsey Johnson (feat. Sarah Goldfeder)

iPolitics
January 19, 2018

Next week’s NAFTA re-negotiation talks in Montreal are expected to proceed as scheduled, despite the looming threat of a government shutdown south of the border.

Inside U.S. Trade reported Thursday the talks will continue as planned – although American officials “might have to make do with a smaller retinue in Montreal.”

Global Affairs Canada refused to say Friday whether the department has received confirmation from the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) that next week’s talks will proceed. The Canadian position, the department said, is that as of right now talks will proceed as scheduled.

“We cannot comment on internal human resources policy of the US government,” spokesperson John Babcock said in email, adding questions should be directed to USTR officials.

USTR officials have yet to respond.

The U.S. government is on the brink of its second government shutdown in five years. Congress has until midnight tonight to pass a funding bill or come up with a short-term fix to keep the lights on in Washington, D.C.

The House of Representatives passed a one-month spending bill late Thursday night. The vote punted the file to the Senate, where a bitter fight erupted on the chamber floor. That’s fuelling speculation the government could be forced to shut down soon — although Congress might pass a short-term funding bill to give Congressional leaders more time to negotiate.

The possible government shutdown comes just days before Canadian, Mexican and American officials are scheduled to meet in Montreal for the sixth round of North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation talks Jan. 21-29.

A government shutdown does not mean every federally funded agency, service and program will stop operating. Certain services – like the military, food inspectors, border services and the U.S. postal service – are deemed essential and continue to operate.

Each department can also determine its own “essential” staff.

“USTR has exempted themselves as essential. So, they’ll be there working,” said Carlo Dade, trade director with the Canada West Foundation, noting that the U.S. team in Montreal is likely to be smaller.

Sarah Goldfeder, a principal at the Ottawa-based lobbying and government relations firm Earnscliffe,  agreed. Goldfeder previously served as ‘special assistant’ to two U.S. ambassadors to Canada.

“Leads will likely be designated ‘essential personnel’ and continue to work,” she said in an email.

Goldfeder said it’s unlikely every official involved would be deemed “essential.” Those decisions, she said, likely were made this past week or the week before.

However, any U.S. government staff working with the American trade mission in Montreal likely would not receive their per diems or see their hotel costs covered during the shutdown, Goldfeder added.

Global Affairs would not say Friday whether, as host nation of next week’s talks, the Canadian government would be expected to cover the Americans’ hotel costs.

A 2015 contingency plan prepared under the Obama administration shows the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative considered 75 of its staff members as essential personnel.”This requirement may be adjusted upwards or downwards as necessary to assist in these functions,” the plan reads.

The U.S. government’s trade infrastructure employs more than 200 people.

Government shutdowns have been known to delay trade negotiations in the past. During the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, the Obama administration was forced to postpone a round of trade talks between the United States and Europe.

The shutdown also meant agency websites were not updated, government reports were not released and national parks were closed.


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