Listen to John Melle discuss their work:
In early 2020, Congress overwhelmingly passed, and President Donald Trump signed, legislation approving and implementing a revamped $1.3 trillion trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that, among other things, adopted tightened environmental and labor standards and included new benefits for the nation’s farmers and the auto industry.
Two federal career employees from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative—John Melle and María Pagán—oversaw the complex, lengthy negotiations, which involved more than 1,000 people, and resulted in an agreement containing 34 detailed chapters and multiple other documents covering virtually every aspect of the economy.
“Without John and María’s extraordinary efforts as chief negotiator and lead counsel, respectively, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement would not have been possible,” said Ambassador C.J. Mahoney, a deputy U.S. trade representative. “They were absolutely indispensable to this effort…and demonstrated remarkable leadership, organizational prowess and diplomatic skill.”
Melle, a 32-year veteran of the USTR, ran the day-to-day negotiations, overseeing dozens of government experts as he tackled milk exports, car imports and minimum wages, and juggled demands of the Canadians, Mexicans, Congress, U.S. stakeholders and the administration.
Pagán, the deputy general counsel at the agency, held the reins in crafting the intricate language that was acceptable to all sides, ensuring conformity to U.S. law and coherent outcomes. A 17-year USTR lawyer, she served as the acting trade representative at the beginning of the Trump administration, before Ambassador Robert Lighthizer was confirmed for the post.
“They were the key people in what I say is the most important trade agreement and trading relationship the United States has,” Lighthizer said. “There were many times when we needed a creative response to issues between the three countries. We would have to find wording or concepts to accommodate all three, as well as achieve our objectives. There are hundreds of examples of John and María doing this.”
To people with long involvement in trade deals and the partisan politics around them, the USMCA was a happy exception. Most of the time when agreements pass, it’s by the “skin of their teeth,” noted Mahoney. The USMCA, by contrast, received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.
While the issue of trade has become increasingly divisive, polarized and politicized during her career at USTR, Pagán said, she and Melle took careful steps to satisfy both parties in Congress, helping to bring along members who had never voted for a trade agreement before.
For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., set up a working group to coordinate with USTR and agree on tougher labor and environmental standards that Mexico would accept. During the many conversations required to put together the implementing legislation, on both big picture and technical details, USTR officials and congressional staff were open to her explanations of technical issues, Pagán said. She also worked closely with senators and staff of the Senate Finance Committee.
Meanwhile, the trade negotiators were talking to industry associations and labor unions, getting input from about a thousand private sector advisors, all of which filtered through the Melle and Pagán.
“John and María were put in a position where they had a very unpopular agreement that some people were calling to eliminate entirely,” said Jamieson Greer, the USTR’s chief of staff. “They stepped into the breach to say, ‘Well, listen, I think there are things we can do with this agreement to make it more acceptable for this country.’”
The challenge of managing the sheer magnitude of trade talks cannot be overstated. Greer said its 34 chapters include issues such as intellectual property, financial services, textiles, tariff rates and currency manipulation, and each country brought a team of experts on every issue.
“John and María managed this giant, moving circus,” Greer said.
He noted that Melle empowered his team while keeping tabs on their progress and problems.
“You have to be flexible and keep your eye on the big picture and understand how these pieces fit together,” Melle said. “Part of the job of a chief negotiator is to make trade-offs. Say, for example, a partner team won’t give us what we want in agriculture. Then we won’t give them what they want on investments—until we come to an agreement.”
Melle, who retired from federal service in February of 2020, first came to the USTR in 1988 on assignment from the Department of Energy. “I loved it,” he said. He soon snagged a permanent job at the trade office and never left. “There is no agency of 250 people that does more for the U.S. economy,” he said.
Pagán, after describing the frenetic, exhausting pace of meeting deadlines for the trade talks, said she sometimes woke up after a short night thinking, “what am I doing?” But even on the worst days she said she knew she would stay. “There is no other job I would rather have,” she said.