Canada needs to groom the new crop of U.S. lawmakers
LUIZA CH. SAVAGENovember202006
WORK WITH US
Canada needs to groom the new crop of U.S. lawmakers
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
The Democrats’ hard-fought conquest of the U.S. House of Representatives offers Canada a mixed bag of potential blessings and threats on issues ranging from managing the land border to agricultural trade. But in practice, the likelihood of gridlock between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate (as Maclean’s went to press on election night, the Senate race was too close to call) and White House means the importance of Capitol Hill will be eclipsed by new faces elsewhere: in statehouses and several key governors’ mansions. Whether the newcomers will turn out to be friends will depend largely on whether Canada does the work of making them so.
In the House, the Democratic takeover brings a new batch of leaders with new personalities and priorities. For example, the House agriculture committee will have a new chairman, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, which increases the possibility of Canada getting side-swiped by protectionist moves as the Democrats work on a new, far-reaching agricultural bill. The farm-raised Peterson has a record of voting against free trade agreements, and he could be susceptible to complaints about the Canadian Wheat Board, or
government support for the pork, poultry or milk sectors, says Colin Robertson, who until recently was the head of the advocacy secretariat at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. “We will face the possibility of becoming either collateral damage or the target of a direct effort against us,” says Robertson, now the president of the Historica Foundation, which promotes Canadian history education.
Because many of those industries are based
THE LIKELIHOOD OF GRIDLOCK IN WASHINGTON MEANS CAPITOL HILL WILL BE ECLIPSED BY THE STATES
in Quebec, a dispute could put particular pressure on the Harper government, which needs to maintain its support in that province. Peterson will be one for Canadian diplomats to get to know—and they have a topic to break the ice: in 1998, he proposed a constitutional amendment to allow residents of Minnesota’s so-called northwest angle to vote on seceding from the U.S. and joining Manitoba.
The top-of-mind issue for Canadian diplomats will continue to be the border, in particular ensuring smooth implementation of a new requirement that everyone entering the U.S., including returning Americans, have valid passports. The rule takes effect on
Jan. 8 for air travellers; for land and sea travel, it’s been postponed to June 2009. Fewer than 24 per cent of Americans hold passports, and Canada’s tourism industry is terrified that families won’t shell out hundreds of dollars for new documents. Businesses are worried about expensive delays at border crossings if proper procedures and infrastructure aren’t put in place with adequate staffing. As a result, Canadian diplomats will soon be fanning out across the Hill to make their case. “We will be making a special effort to get to know the new members of Congress and get them educated quickly about how much Canada matters to them and the importance of the border to prosperity in both countries,” says Canadian Embassy spokesman Bernard Etzinger.
In the debate over the policy, known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), the House took a harder-line security approach than did the Senate. But the elections have brought to power several allies of Canada. Minnesota Democrat James L. Oberstar has been friendly to the Canadian position on border issues. He is expected to become chairman of the transportation and infrastucture committee. New York congresswoman Louise Slaughter, of upstate New York, is referred to by Canadian officials as a “tremendous ally” on making sure the border works. She is slated to become chairwoman of the rules committee, a post that controls the flow of legislation through the House.
Scotty Greenwood, a managing director
of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, a Washington lobby firm with Canadian clients, predicts that Slaughter could use her position to make sure there is sufficient funding for the necessary infrastructure—from special lanes to workable technology. “I would expect her to encourage the Department of Homeland Security to use the time Congress has given them to do it right, instead of rushing to get it deployed at the border,” Greenwood says.
The Democratic victory in the House also means that Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, will lose the chairmanship of the House judiciary committee, which he used to advance a hard-line approach on border issues that nearly scuttled the bipartisan compromise to delay the passport law. In his place comes Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, home to two of the busiest border crossings, and a state that,
he has said, would lose $100 million “if spontaneous travel is hindered by a complicated crossing identification policy.” But governmental gridlock could leave little room for any legislative changes. “I think this Congress will be frozen on the WHTI. There is no chance, absolutely zero, that it is going away. The only thing that Canada can hope is that implementation is right,” says Christopher Sands, a Canada specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Gridlock could also imperil other Democratic agenda items that would impact Canada. For example, the legalization of bulk imports of prescription drugs from Canada has been a pet issue for Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee, who is in line for a senior leadership position. Greenwood predicts that removing legal barriers to re-importation of prescription drugs will be a “high-priority” item
for the new House. Likewise, Democrats also campaigned on passing new energy legislation, emphasizing the need to reduce reliance on Mideast oil. That would offer an opportunity for Canada (particularly Alberta) to push for provisions encouraging the building of new pipelines and the expansion of refinery capacity to enable the U.S. market to absorb more exports from the oil sands. But gridlock may mean nothing happens on drugs, energy or much else.
The real potential for action will be outside the Beltway. “Far more important for Canada than congressional elections are elections in the states: Canada relies a lot on governors to advocate on shared concerns
AS SOON AS NEW MEMBERS TAKE THEIR SEATS, CANADIAN DIPLOMATS WILL BE FANNING OUT
and on the border,” says Sands. The resolution of the dispute over Devils Lake was largely due to a good relationship between Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who voiced concerns about North Dakota’s plan to discharge polluted waters into the Red River, says Robertson. “These governor relationships really matter because the states matter—that is increasingly where the problems come from. And if the governor is our friend, then we are closer to solving them.”
In Michigan, the Vancouver-born Demo-
cratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, managed to keep her seat. Her administration has been a leading proponent of improving the security of American drivers’ licences so they could be used as border-crossing ID. In Massachusetts, where Democrat Patrick Deval replaced Republican Mitt Romney, the change of governorship could breathe new life into a key Canadian relationship: the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers. “It’s one of the oldest hidden-wire relationships, but you’ve got to have the Massachusetts governor for it to work. Romney didn’t show any interest in it, so that relationship was languishing,” says Robertson.
Elsewhere, potential alliances have yet to be explored. “I don’t think there are any people we see as, ‘Oh this is not the right person for Canada’—but we definitely have to get to know them and get to know them quickly,” says Etzinger. And new governors and state legislators across the country give Canadians new opportunities to build relationships not just to address pressing issues, but as an investment in the future: state-level politicians are often the farm team for the Senate, the White House and the cabinet.
The states have indirect influences on provinces as well: competition to reduce taxes and draw business investment, for example. In New York State, Republican Gov. George Pataki was replaced by a Democrat, Eliot Spitzer. Sands, for one, says that might result in less competitive pressure on Ontario and Quebec. Successive Quebec premiers, he notes, have all shifted the province “toward fiscal discipline in part because of competing with Republican-run states,” he notes. “The switch to Democrats doesn’t mean taxes will go up— but it might take some of the pressure off and give Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty some room.” With so much riding on the new faces, let the wining and dining begin. M
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