January 15, 2015
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
negotiations. The United States now has 14 FTAs with 20
What Is It? NAFTA is a free trade agreement (FTA)
among the United States, Canada, and Mexico that entered
into force on January 1, 1994 (P.L. 103-182). All three
partners are currently in negotiations for a Trans-Pacific
Partnership (TPP), a proposed comprehensive and high
standard FTA among 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific
region, which could alter certain NAFTA provisions.
NAFTA continues to be of interest to Congress because of
the strong U.S. trade and investment ties with Canada and
Mexico, and because of its significance for U.S. trade
policy. At the time it was negotiated, NAFTA was unusual
in global terms because it was the first time that a U.S. FTA
linked two advanced economies with a developing country.
For this reason, the agreement sparked debate among policy
makers, industries, agriculture producers, labor unions,
nongovernment organizations, and academics about its
potential benefits and costs. NAFTA-implementing
legislation included revisions to the U.S. trade adjustment
assistance program to address production shifts and assist
Milestones. Negotiations began in February 1991. The
agreement was signed by President George H. W. Bush on
December 17, 1992. NAFTA side agreements were signed in
August 1993. The NAFTA Implementation Act was approved by
Congress on November 20, 1993, and signed into law by
President William J. Clinton on December 8, 1993.
Prior Liberalization. NAFTA enhanced prior liberalization
efforts. The U.S.-Canada FTA had been in effect since 1989, and
Mexico was in the process of substantive unilateral trade and
investment liberalization measures.
NAFTA Text. NAFTA includes eight parts consisting of 22
chapters. It contains provisions on tariff and non-tariff barrier
elimination, customs procedures, energy and petrochemicals,
agriculture, technical barriers to trade, government procurement,
foreign investments, services trade, temporary entry for business
persons, intellectual property rights protection, and dispute
Labor and Environmental Side Agreements. NAFTA
parties approved additional binding side agreements on labor and
the environment, including the establishment of the North
American Development Bank.
Why Is NAFTA Important? NAFTA initiated a new
generation of trade agreements in the Western Hemisphere
and other parts of the world, influencing negotiations in
areas such as market access, rules of origin, intellectual
property rights (IPR), foreign investment, dispute
resolution, worker rights, and the environment. NAFTA
addressed new trade policy issues and served as a catalyst
for future FTAs and for concluding major multilateral trade
What Are Supporting Views? Past and present proponents
of NAFTA view the agreement as an opportunity for
generating economic growth, creating jobs, increasing
productivity, reducing income disparity, strengthening
trilateral relations, and enhancing North American
What Are Opposing Views? Opponents argue that the
agreement has caused job losses in the United States as
companies moved production to Mexico to lower costs, put
downward pressure on U.S. wages, increased income
disparity, led to environmental degradation, and has been an
infringement on U.S. sovereignty.
Key NAFTA Provisions
Market Opening. An important aspect of NAFTA relates
to national treatment and market access for goods and
services. The agreement eliminated tariffs over 10 years (15
years for sensitive products) and most non-tariff barriers on
North American goods, as long as they meet specific rules
of origin. Trade barriers on sensitive items, such as sugar
and corn, received the longest phase-out periods.
IPR Protection. NAFTA was the first trade agreement to
include a chapter on IPR. It set minimum standards of
protection and enforcement for patents, copyrights,
trademarks, and other forms of IPR. It also served as a
template for the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) TradeRelated Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement.
Foreign Investment. NAFTA removed significant
investment barriers, especially in Mexico, ensured basic
protections for NAFTA investors, and provided a
mechanism for dispute settlement. It includes countryspecific liberalization commitments and exemptions such as
Mexico’s energy sector and cultural industries in Canada.
Labor and Environmental Provisions. The original text
of the agreement did not include enforceable labor or
environmental provisions. Due to congressional concerns at
the time, the three countries negotiated and signed separate
binding side agreements, but these do not go as far as more
recent FTAs. A notable aspect of these provisions is the
dispute settlement process, which, as a last resort, may
impose monetary assessments and sanctions if a party fails
to enforce its laws.
The overall net effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy
appears to have been positive, though modest, primarily
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North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
because trade with Canada and Mexico account for a small
percentage of U.S. GDP. Most economists contend that the
claims on both sides of the NAFTA debate were overblown.
It did not cause the job losses feared by the critics or the
employment gains predicted by the proponents. Not all
changes in trade and investment patterns within North
America can be attributed to NAFTA, especially since there
were other liberalization efforts at the time. Trade also has
been affected by factors such as currency fluctuations and
economic conditions. Job gains and losses since NAFTA’s
entry into force may not be totally attributable to the
agreement. Trade and employment levels tend to increase
during cycles of economic growth and tend to decrease as
Although the net economic effect was positive, there were
worker and firm adjustment costs as many industries
adapted to the more open and competitive trade
environment. These losses tended to be more concentrated
in specific industries, such as the apparel industry in the
United States or the agricultural sector in Mexico.
Industries tend to be concentrated in certain geographical
regions, making some communities more vulnerable than
others to adverse employment effects. In contrast, the gains
from trade tend to be more widespread.
Figure 1. U.S. Merchandise Trade with NAFTA
NAFTA has spurred greater economic integration among
the three countries. Much of the trade between the United
States and its NAFTA partners occurs in the context of
production sharing, as manufacturers source components
from all three countries. An estimated 40% of the content of
U.S. imports from Mexico and 25% of the content of U.S.
imports from Canada are of U.S. origin. This type of trade,
however, requires a border infrastructure that facilitates
commerce while maintaining security objectives.
Issues for Congress
The rising number of bilateral and regional trade
agreements throughout the world could have implications
for U.S. trade policy with its NAFTA partners. Some trade
policy experts contend that a deepening of economic
relations with Canada and Mexico will help promote a
common trade agenda with shared values and that it would
have positive implications for competitiveness, corporate
governance, worker rights, the environment, and
democratic governance. However, labor groups and some
consumer-advocacy groups argue that the agreement needs
to be reconsidered because it has resulted in U.S. job losses,
outsourcing, lower wages, and job dislocation in Mexico,
especially in agriculture.
Both proponents and critics of NAFTA agree that policy
makers could consider ways in which to work with NAFTA
partners to address issues related to trade facilitation,
worker rights, environmental conditions, competitiveness,
and trade relations. Policy makers could consider measures
such as strengthening institutions to protect the
environment and worker rights; considering the
establishment of a border infrastructure plan, including
more investment in infrastructure to make border crossings
more efficient; increasing regulatory cooperation;
promoting research and development; and/or creating more
efforts to lessen income differentials.
Another key issue for Congress related to NAFTA is the
proposed TPP. If a TPP is reached and approved by
Congress, it could alter the rules governing North American
trade since NAFTA entered into force, in areas such as
investment, energy, IPR protection, state-owned
enterprises, global value chains, discriminatory regulatory
barriers, worker rights, and the environment.
Source: Compiled by CRS using data from ITC.
Trade Trends Since NAFTA
U.S. trade with NAFTA partners has more than tripled
since the agreement took effect. It has increased more
rapidly than trade with the rest of the world. Between 1993
and 2013, according to the U.S. International Trade
Commission (ITC), U.S. trade with Mexico increased by
522%. In comparison, trade with Canada went up by 200%,
while trade with non-NAFTA countries increased by 279%.
In 2013, Canada was the leading market for U.S. exports,
while Mexico ranked second. The two countries accounted
for 33% of total U.S. exports in 2013. In imports, Canada
and Mexico ranked second and third, respectively, as
suppliers of U.S. imports in 2013.
For more information see CRS Report R42965, NAFTA at
20: Overview and Trade Effects, and CRS Report R42694,
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Negotiations and
Issues for Congress.
M. Angeles Villarreal, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-0321
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