Democrats Should Pass on Fight Over USMCA

When it comes to choosing brawls with President Donald Trump, Democratic Members of Congress have plenty of options: health care, immigration, infrastructure and, of course, the Mueller repercussions.

Here’s one scrap they should take a pass on: Ratifying the new North American trade deal, also known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA).

The USMCA is a rare piece of good news at an ominous moment for global free trade. It modernizes the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a deal whose initial foundations were poured by Canada and the United States 30 years ago, back in the days when politicians had to get on the 6 o’clock local news to attract attention.

Since then, three decades of swelling trade flows and the addition of Mexico to the pact has created millions of jobs, while aligning supply chains in a new economic geography for the continent. It’s why hearts skipped a beat when Trump called NAFTA a “disaster and put it on the hit list of trade deals he didn’t like.

Many of those hearts were in Canada and Mexico. Many more were in places like Michigan, Ohio, Texas and the multitude of states where manufacturing workers, small businesses, farmers and truckers depend on cross-border trade. So with NAFTA now refreshed for the 21st century, you’d think Congress would deliver some much-needed certainty to the millions of workers whose livelihoods are on the line, signing a welcome armistice in a time when trade agreements are being used as kindling for populist bonfires.

Yet the House Democrats are stalling. Sure, it’s better than the old NAFTA, they say. “On paper, the USMCA is a significant improvement over the North American Free Trade Agreement,” Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee told Canadian media (Kildee sits on the House Ways and Means Committee that is the first hurdle for the USMCA’s passage). Yes, the Mexican legislature passed it overwhelmingly (114-4 in the Senate), and Canada’s government is ready to do the same in its parliament.

But the Trump deal could still use a few tweaks on the enforcement side, the Democrats say, as if using the full power of American law to enforce clauses in trade pacts is a problem for this president. The Democrats are demanding tougher enforcement provisions on labor and environmental protections — pointing directly at the Mexicans as potential laggards — and demanding revisions that will almost certainly push the USMCA’s fate past the summer recess and into the uncertainty of the fall or beyond.

We hope members of Congress are listening to their constituents when they go home for the August recess. We know that thousands of individuals in Democrat-held districts have urged ratification by “faxing” their representatives using the Canadian American Business Council online tool, our pointed way of reminding people that when the first Canada-U.S. free trade agreement was signed, cutting-edge technology meant fax machines.

We know that auto workers in Canada, who have a huge stake in holding Mexico to higher labor standards, back this deal. Our fax machine tells us daily that thousands of American small business owners want it signed, as do the farmers and ranchers who have taken a pounding from the tariffs that are the administration’s alternative should the USMCA go down.

Democrats should take note of that grassroots mood, especially in trade-dependent states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the battlegrounds where Trump drew his political inside straight to win the Electoral College in 2016. That means Democrats like Ron Kind, whose 3rd Congressional District in Wisconsin shifted from Obama in 2012 to Trump. Rep. Kind now ranks No. 3 on our list of “Most Faxed”. 

North American trade policy has shown a remarkable ability to cross party lines over the years. The initial Canada-U.S. agreement was negotiated between a Republican president — Ronald Reagan, for those keeping score — and Canadian conservatives. The deal to bring Mexico on board was struck between those same two parties and ratified with upgrades by a Democratic president (Clinton) and Canadian liberals. And the USMCA refresh was co-authored by a (populist) Republican U.S. administration and a liberal Canadian prime minister, with a center-right Mexican president negotiating the terms that were passed into law by the nationalist, leftist government that replaced him.

That political consensus should assure Democrats there is little risk of an organized blowback from their left against passing the deal, a point Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has openly made to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Calling the USMCA “a better deal for workers on both sides of the border, Trudeau pointed to integral parts of the deal that “we look to the U.S. Democrats to understand are significant improvements and are issues that, like Canadian Liberals, they care deeply about.”

Overcoming the instinct to oppose has, over 30 years, created a powerful continental trading bloc that is well-equipped to confront challenges from China and others. Democrats like Kildee say they like the agreement and “want to get it done.” Yet they seem so fearful of giving the president anything he can call a win that they indulge in fear mongering about Mexico’s probity, making them equal opportunity Mexican bashers. Spoiler alert: Trump is going to claim a win no matter what the outcome for the USMCA.

If Democrats truly held deep concerns about Mexico’s readiness to enforce the labor and environmental provisions in trade agreements, they had two terms under Obama to take it up. They never did. On some issues, you simply must find common ground and choose to govern. Democrats need to get this done.     

Maryscott “Scotty” Greenwood is CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting business issues between Canada and the United States.

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