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Opinion: New Congress has vital role to play on trade front

Washington, December 16, 2018

Within hours of the announcement by General Motors that it would shutter five of its North American plants and eliminate more than 14,000 jobs, Donald Trump took to Twitter to excoriate the carmaker for its investments in China and Mexico and made promises of government retribution for the layoffs.

GM’s surprise move and Trump’s caustic response to it both highlight the perils inherent in a haphazard national trade policy. For too long, administrations of both parties prized corporate globalization: building out large conglomerates to the benefit of their stockholders, while ignoring the preservation of jobs and wages within our borders.

Donald Trump’s interest in rebalancing our trade relationships to create better jobs within our own borders, then, should be a good thing. But the dishonesty and chaos of his administration have fostered enormous instability and have hindered our opportunity to achieve needed change for American workers and American small businesses.

This is where the new Democratic House of Representatives enters the picture. We have an opportunity to give direction to our nation’s trade policies. After two years of utter neglect by congressional Republicans, we intend to provide that direction, reaching out to the other side at every juncture.

With all of Trump’s posturing on the subject, many Americans may not realize that ultimate authority over our nation’s trade sits in the hands of Congress, not with the President, something the Constitution sets explicitly in Article I, Section 8. At numerous points, Congress has delegated to the executive the authority to negotiate trade agreements so that our government can speak through the President’s single voice. That power is limited, and always temporary. But it is up to Congress to reclaim it role and assert its voice.

Since his election, Trump has made threats, both real and imagined to partners and competitors alike. He has repeatedly threatened to blow up our trade relationships, and sought to use tariffs as blunt weapons rather than surgical tools.

The fruits of that chaos are not hard to discern. Our trade deficit, meaning the imbalance of what we bring in in imports versus what we send out in exports, is at a 10-year high. U.S. exports have been badly hurt by Chinese retaliatory tariffs; soybean exports to China, for example, have plummeted nearly 100 percent. Farm bankruptcies concentrated in the Midwest have risen precipitously. Manufacturers like GM and Harley Davidson have closed facilities and eliminated jobs, purportedly due, in part, to the current unstable trade policy environment. And, as we’ve seen with recent stock Dow Jones spikes, markets react poorly to uncertainty.

Despite Trump’s repeated boasting that he is a great dealmaker and that trade wars are easy to win, formulating effective trade policies is a job of enormous complexity. Trump’s approach has been trying to do open-heart surgery with TNT.

Over the last two years, Congress could have slammed the brakes on Trump’s bellicose moves by imposing order on our trade agenda. The House Ways and Means Committee, which has control over tax and trade policies, could have held myriad hearings subjecting top White House officials to probing questions on their trade agenda. We have the responsibility to conduct scrupulous oversight exposing their plans to sunlight. Congress could have demanded more.

Instead, Republicans sat complacent and made nary a peep of formal objection or direction to this administration’s muddled trade policies, completely ceding our vital authority to conduct maintenance of the health of our government. Incredibly, over the entire 115th Congress, Ways and Means did not bring in one administration witness for a public hearing on renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

It has been a stunning dereliction, and one Democrats in the 116th Congress will not continue. If and when a new NAFTA is officially put before us, we plan to hold hearings that explore its impact on American workers and American businesses. We will use our oversight power to make sure our nation’s trade policies are once again looking out for our citizens.

Our current NAFTA malaise can be traced in large part to a Bermuda Triangle of negative interests, with large corporations, the Mexican government, and Mexican government-controlled unions long working together in a way that has encouraged depressed wages and offshored jobs. The results have been catastrophic for tens of millions of Americans.

Democrats stand ready to work with U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, who has struck me as honest and straightforward, and who assures me that he shares our goal of protecting American workers.

But none of this means that Democrats cannot find areas of common ground and overlapping interest with this regime. Trade may be one of those areas. And while it is often underplayed in the political coverage on cable news, it is of paramount relevance.

Among my colleagues, I have been skeptical of many so-called free trade agreements. Witnessing too many industries and firms shutter in Paterson, I believe that many deals have hastened the demise of American industry, eliminated good jobs, depressed wages, and given license to American corporate titans to ignore our national dignity to pad their wallets. For this reason, I and most of my Democratic colleagues opposed fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016.

The renegotiated NAFTA may soon be before Congress. It could be one of the most important pieces of policy on our docket over the next two years. Correctly done, a revamped deal can set the tone and impose the framework for many sectors of our economy for the next decade. The failure of the original NAFTA is still felt today by the communities obliterated by closed factories and the workers and their families still working under depressed, stagnant wages. By imposing a more coherent trade agenda, we have a chance to set this country back on a solid economic path.

After fumbling it a generation ago, we need to get it right this time.

Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat from Paterson, represents the 9th Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives

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