By Jesse Schneider

Why are the policy and politics of the North American Free Trade Agreement so fraught? According to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, the agreement’s name is a misnomer.

“When we’re thinking about covering trade agreements, it’s not mainly about free trade,” she said.

In a session with journalists at a National Press Foundation program, Wallach (bio, Twitter) urged journalists to think of everything that NAFTA includes that is not explicitly related to free trade. She mentioned food safety, drug prices, internet policy, e-commerce rules and banking regulation as examples of matters addressed in the NAFTA renegotiation that are ripe for story ideas. And if President Donald Trump withdraws the U.S. from the agreement, “agriculture is the NAFTA story,” Wallach said.

NAFTA was negotiated by then-President George H.W. Bush and signed in 1992. It went into effect Jan. 1, 1994, meaning the agreement turns 25 in January 2019.

Wallach said that the secrecy around recent NAFTA renegotiations – including the Obama administration’s decision to classify NAFTA texts – bred public distrust; she described the agreement as “900 pages of behind-the-border policy.”

“They’re not the nuclear codes,” she said.

Unlike other treaties that journalists might cover, NAFTA has its own enforcement system. Amending the agreement is difficult because all signatory nations must agree to any changes. Further, NAFTA does not contain a sunset clause. According to Wallach, these provisions limit room for progress as well as responses to emerging problems.

When covering renegotiation of NAFTA or any other trade deal, journalists should be aware of “fast track” authority, Wallach said. For 200 years, Congress set trade policy. In 1973, then-President Richard Nixon enacted a fast track process, shifting enormous control over trade agreements to the executive branch. Fact track gives exclusive authority to unilaterally select trade partners, set agreements’ terms and sign deals before Congress votes.