Last Monday I travelled to Washington, DC with Tracey Ramsey, the NDP critic for International Trade. I was there in my role as NDP critic for Natural Resources, and we were both there to talk about softwood lumber with senators, congressmen and their staff.
We had a full day of meetings on Tuesday, going from office to office while senators negotiated Trump’s new health care act and House representatives went through a myriad of amendments and votes in committees. It was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and very instructive as to the differences between the Canadian and American political and governance systems.
Our visit happened to coincide with the announcement of a second round of duties placed on exports of Canadian softwood lumber. With these anti-dumping levies added to the countervail duties set in April, our mills are now paying about 27% duty when their products cross the border. Needless to say, this is a serious blow to the Canadian industry, especially to smaller mills that deal almost exclusively with the United States market.
It’s also difficult for US builders, who have seen lumber prices increase by over 25% in the last year, driving up the price of a new American home by $3500 or more. Some builders on the US east coast are now talking of importing lumber from Romania, since the cost of that product is now less than North American supplies even after accounting for shipping.
The conversations on Capitol Hill were interesting on a number of levels. Many politicians and staffers appeared unaware of the long and tortured history of the five softwood lumber disputes dating back to 1982. Many didn’t know that Canada had won repeated appeals of American duties, four times at the World Trade Organization, and ten times at various NAFTA dispute resolution panels.
The trade analyst in the office of the Maine representative admitted that she had heard arguments on both sides of the issue from their constituents, since many American companies buy Canadian wood to make products to sell back to Canada.
Several of the politicians we talked to praised us for our initiative to come and talk to them. They pointed out that these face-to-face visits were a good way to get around the chaotic messaging coming from the Trump administration. We mentioned our frustration in dealing with the US Trade Representative, the office that would negotiate a new agreement, since that office has hardly had any positions filled since the election and is ill-prepared to deal with complex negotiations on softwood and NAFTA.
We left each meeting with a plea to try to resolve this dispute quickly and fairly. The Canada-US trading relationship is too important to both countries to be dragged down by unreasonable demands. The trip reinforced my feeling that face-to-face meetings are often the best way to resolve differences, and that good relationships between politicians at all levels go a long way to smoothing out nation to nation differences.