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Can the U.S. Congress Help Canada?

Appeared in the Trail Daily Times and New Brunswick Telegraph Journal
Release Date: May 13, 2011
The U.S Constitution declares that Congress--not the president—is the first branch of government. What does that mean for Canadian-American relations? We conducted a content analysis of America’s national legislature to measure how U.S. Senators and House Representatives perceive Canada. We wanted to determine if the views held by members of Congress were favorable or negative on Canadian policy ideas and bilateral issues.

We analyzed transcribed congressional debates between 2001 and 2010, where the focus of discussion was Canada or Canadian policy, and used coding techniques and outside judges to quantify our results and reduce bias. In total, we found more than 1,800 substantive comments about Canada which revealed five important trends in Congressional perception of Canada.

On the issue of free trade, we confirmed what many feared, namely that Congress is usually critical about its closest trading partner. Trade issues and disputes engendered rebukes from both parties, but Republicans usually followed these by advocacy for free trade. Democrats on the other hand, tended to focus on America’s ballooning trade imbalance within NAFTA and condemn the accord. Persuading Congress to enter into further trade negotiations with Canada will be challenging to say the least.

During debates on U.S. health care reform, we found that Republicans were very critical of Canadian-style health care, while Democrats ignored it as a model for Americans. Democrats only liked Canada’s system of pharmaceutical price controls.

On energy, Democratic and Republican views of Canada are quite positive. Representatives of both parties express support for further development of the oil sands. Our findings suggest that Congress has a good understanding of the importance of bilateral energy trade and may well be able to withstand environmentalist attempts to impose restrictive policies on crude oil imports. The so-called ‘dirty fuel’ debate is not prevalent in Congress. We also did not find serious Congressional opposition to the construction of additional oil pipelines.

When it comes to the topic of a shared border and related security issues, our findings confirmed what many Canadians have long surmised:  Both Republicans and Democrats in the House have a negative view of Canada, with House Republicans substantially more negative than Democrats on this score. Many comments were fixated on possible security risks to the U.S. and the lack of improvement in border security. Our data suggests that Canada remains highly vulnerable to a Congressional push to thicken the border and impose additional regulations and requirements on cross-border traffic in the name of security. Given this sentiment, the current Canada-U.S. negotiations on perimeter security are likely to attract flak from Congress and will require steady guidance from the White House.

Both the House Republicans and Democrats continued to view Canada as a loyal foreign ally and a reliable defence partner. Even during the time of disagreement between Ottawa and Washington over the 2003 Iraq War, we found only negligible negative views expressed about Canada. This is a novel finding, considering how many observers worried that Canada’s decision to opt out of the Iraq War would inflict permanent damage to the political relationship. The benevolent view of Canada has survived and was enhanced by our efforts in Afghanistan, which many in Congress noticed.

What should Canadians and their politicians make of these findings? First of all, the traditional political benevolence towards us is still there and remains a political resource for us to tap. Goodwill in defence and foreign policy is not easily used elsewhere but should be valued for the overall tone and climate of Congressional perception. Second, we are only at the beginning of a long process of trying to get Americans to think in a more nuanced and sophisticated manner about our shared border. Finally, Congress remains a key player for Canada to push back against any U.S. administration that wants to cut back on Canadian energy imports for green reasons.