Congress should make a New Year’s resolution to support free trade in 2019.
A number of pundits have assumed that as new leaders take formal control of the House of Representatives on January 3, they will embrace their party’s traditional protectionism.
Perhaps this is even a safe bet. In December, Nancy Pelosi, the most likely speaker of the 116th Congress, issued a warning: The House may not approve the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), negotiated by the Trump administration to replace NAFTA.
The scrambled politics of our time, however, offers an important lesson: Don’t assume anything.
Since the election of President Trump, Democratic support for free-trade agreements has soared. Two-thirds of Democrats now believe that these deals are a “good thing” for the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, a retired Democratic congressman from Florida delivered a blunt message to his former colleagues: “You might not be backing trade, but our base has beat you to it.”
James Bacchus argued that the mainstream of his party is comprised neither of factory workers who blame foreign trade for their woes nor of anti-globalization protestors who grab headlines. “Rather,” he wrote, “Democrats live mostly in technologically advanced and digitally engaged metropolitan areas and are eager, productive participants in the global economy who benefit from globalization.”
As a farmer in New Jersey, I’ve spent decades supporting agriculture and trade politics, starting at the county level in the 1970s and eventually rising to become president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Along the way, I’ve gotten to know a lot of politicians.
This has allowed me to go on trade missions and become a strong advocate on the national level for trade agreements that improve market opportunities for farmers. I’ve always believed in the necessity of trade, starting with the economic principle that for every 1 percent of agricultural product that flows outside normal channels of commerce—soybean sales to Germany, for instance—farm revenues grow by 5 percent.
As for the politics, I’ve seen it all before, including a Democrat president who understood the benefits of free trade: In the 1990s, Bill Clinton easily could have let NAFTA die, as Pelosi now threatens to do with its potential successor, USMCA. Instead, he led an effort to secure enough Democratic votes to combine with Republican supporters and win approval for a deal that has improved the flow of goods and services throughout our continent.
This is why I think USMCA ultimately will pass: A substantial number of Democrats will see the advantage of the pact. They’ll understand that our economy needs this modernized agreement. They’ll also hear from constituents who expect legislators to represent the interests of their districts.
Democrats who back USMCA will have to overcome their anti-Trump prejudices, and I’m hopeful that enough of them will be able to do this. If I’ve learned anything about politicians, it’s that they respond well to common-sense arguments about what their constituents want and need. If just a handful announce their support of USMCA, more will join them.
Republican lawmakers face different challenges. Support for free trade among their base of voters is split, according to Pew: 46 percent believe that trade agreements have been a “bad thing” for the United States and 43 percent regard them as a “good thing.”
This is another example of how much President Trump has changed the political landscape. Before his election, most rank-and-file Republicans favored trade agreements, according to Pew’s surveys.
Now they’re playing a game of follow the leader: They’re going where President Trump has tried to take them, even if that means placing to the sidelines their traditional views about trade.
The good news is that although President Trump was fiercely critical of NAFTA during the campaign, he’s also a strong defender of USMCA—and his arguments ought to sway a large majority of congressional members.
So that’s the political math in the House of Representatives: a minority of the Democratic majority and a majority of the Republican minority combine to do what’s right for the country.
Could it be that even in our era of bitter divides, bipartisanship can prevail? Let’s hope so, as we march forward into the New Year.