Rob Merrifield was formerly special representative of the province of Alberta to the United States, a member of Parliament and federal government special envoy to Congress.
News and social media these days are full of guesses of what the President and his new administration will do to the United States and its place in the world over the next four years. While fixating on one, obviously important, branch of the U.S. government, we are guilty of ignoring another equally important, and often equally powerful one: the Congress.
The President and the executive branch are separate from congress and the legislative branch. It is the role of the former to enforce the laws created by the latter and it is only through building consensus in the House of Representatives and the Senate that a President can hope to see bills passed to enact his policy objectives. Congress can make or break any policy issue in Washington, and, as Canada braces itself for a potential war between free traders and protectionists, we would be wise to begin cultivating support from within Congress as a defence.
Indeed, the Prime Minister’s expressed willingness to open up the North American free-trade agreement could be imminently dangerous for the Canadian economy if we haven’t taken the precaution of selling its benefits to Congress first.
Media reports have indicated that the Canadian government is beginning to reach out to the incoming administration to discuss our trading relationship in advance of any change in policy, but this is the bare minimum of what the Liberal government must be doing. There is only one President of the United States at any given time, but there are 535 members of the U.S. Congress – 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.
During my years of building relationships with American legislators through countless face-to-face meetings, I stopped being surprised at how little they actually knew about the Canada-U.S. trading relationship. The majority don’t know that Canada is the United States’ largest customer. They don’t know that nearly $2-billion in trade crosses our shared border every day. They certainly don’t know that almost 9 million U.S. jobs depend on our trading relationship. Thirty-five states in the United States count Canada as their largest export market, but many American legislators from states such as Alabama, Tennessee and Iowa might not be able to tell you that. Neighbouring states to Canada such as Montana, North Dakota and Michigan tend to be more informed simply out of geographic necessity.
So how can the government best engage with these 535 other decision-makers in Washington with much to learn about the inherent interdependencies within our two economies?
It must be a whole-of-government approach that has the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and other government officials continually making the rounds on Capitol Hill.
All of them need to make the same pitch for the Canadian-U.S. relationship and why it is important for the United States to take precautions to ensure that Canada is not sideswiped by border measures meant to target specific issues with other economies such as Mexico and China. In addition, Canada should work to partner further with valuable organizations such as the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, the Canadian American Business Council, the Wilson Centre, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, among others, to proclaim a consistent message to the United States of the value of an open border and fluid trade with Canada.
The perennial truth about Canada-U.S. relations is that American legislators don’t generally know a lot about Canada. I remember meeting with a congressman who told me that it’s their fault that Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to us because when they look at a weather map, everything north of the 49th parallel is blank. He was joking of course, but it is an apt anecdote to show just how much work Canada needs to put into informing Washington about our importance to their economy. By engaging with Congress immediately, the Canadian government can ensure that it has the relationships in place that it will need to call upon if or when a real battle for free trade actually begins.