Retail industry leaders will focus on competitive pressures, privacy concerns, trade and a host of other issues as the 116th Congress gets underway this month, according to an official public policy agenda from the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), released this week.
RILA said January 7 it has launched "an ambitious" retail-focused policy agenda for 2019, citing competition and innovation, growing the retail workforce, and securing efficient supply chains as some of its top priorities this year.
The group said it will continue to work with the Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission on reforming the payments ecosystem, for example, and will also stay engaged with Congress and the Trump Administration on the negative effects of tariffs and the China trade war on the retail economy. RILA is also focused on infrastructure issues and said it will continue efforts to increase awareness about port inefficiencies as well as related topics such as the trucking industry's driver shortage.
Austen Jensen, RILA's senior vice president of government affairs, said he expects privacy to be an issue "right out of the gate" in the new Congress, citing a shift in concern from data security to consumer privacy among government and industry leaders.
"I would say there's going to be a robust debate [about privacy] on Capitol Hill," Jensen said, noting that the House of Representatives is likely to take action on the issue sooner than the Senate in the new session. "But if you talk to both [sides], both are very much aligned on trying to do something on privacy."
RILA says it is focused on education and awareness about privacy laws, as well updating outdated laws to reflect issues and concerns in the digital economy.
Trade issues will also take center stage this year, especially in light of the uncertainty surrounding tariffs on Chinese imports and the pending approval of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade. Hun Quach, RILA's vice president of international trade, says the group supports the administration's efforts to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the form of the USMCA, pointing to new rules on ecommerce and the digital economy as an example—issues that were not addressed when NAFTA took effect more than 20 years ago. But she said RILA and others are still watching the USMCA carefully as it makes its way through the approval process; new rules of origin requirements may affect some retailers, for instance, and lawmakers may try and make changes as the proposal moves through Congress, she said.
"We're far away from a congressional vote on this," Quach said.
A report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on changes to the U.S. law is expected later this month, but a vote on the USMCA is not expected for several months, Quach said.
The threat of tariffs remains a concern as well. The delayed implementation of new tariffs on Chinese goods set to take effect this month was good news to retailers, Quach said, but the looming March 2 deadline extension is still a concern. The Trump adminstration announced December 1 it would delay raising tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on certain Chinese imports for 90-days while it continues trade negotiations with China. Businesses and consumers could be hit hard if those talks are unsucessful, Quach said.
"The looming March 2 deadline is weighing on our sourcing and transportation executives, our financial planners," she said, referring to RILA member companies. "The potential for a fourth round of tariffs is concerning to a lot of our retailers that sell everything from clothing to toys to consumer electronics."
Adding to the level of uncertainty is the divided government and its ability to move anything along in the 116th Congress. Jensen and Quach say infrastructure is one area that usually bucks that trend and that may gain bipartisan support in the year ahead. Jensen says there are whispers about an infrastructure bill in the works, and that RILA will continue efforts to support infrastructure updates to the nation's ports, highways, railroads and bridges.
"Transportation has been very bipartisan, and we've been at the forefront advocating [for infrastructure improvements]," he said. "Unfortunately, the last Congress was not able to get anything off the ground. But this is one of the areas you may see the divided government come together [this year]."