Wisconsin farmers wary as Trump seeks victory on ‘New NAFTA’ 

Vice President comes to Wisconsin to push deal, Democrats remain unconvinced

President Trump signs the USMCA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada
Pres. Trump participates in USMCA signing ceremony, Nov. 30 2018 (Photo courtesy US Dept of State)

WASHINGTON – Prospects for most legislation are dim in the nation’s capital as efforts to impeach the president ramp up and the election year approaches.

A possible exception: ratification of a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, which could have major implications for Wisconsin farmers. 

President Donald Trump and leaders of Canada and Mexico signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) last fall. But the update of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) won’t take effect unless it is approved by the legislative bodies of all three governments.

Proponents of the deal argue it would strengthen trade, create jobs, and grow the economy in Wisconsin and around the country. Sensing a closing window of legislative opportunity, they’re seizing on the October congressional recess to make their case.

Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)
Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at CPAC in 2017 (photo by Gage Skidmore)

On Oct. 17, Vice President Mike Pence will visit Pleasant Prairie, Wis., to speak in favor of the trade deal at the headquarters of Uline, the shipping, packaging, and industrial supply company owned by prominent Republican donors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. Pence’s visit is sponsored by America First Policies, a group that supports Donald Trump’s agenda, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc) on stage
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) speaking at CPAC 2011 (Photo by Gage Skidmore,).

Critics of the new trade agreement warn it would jeopardize small farmers and allow possible violations of labor and environmental standards to go unchecked.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate penned an op-ed last week calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to pass the trade deal – and Wisconsin Republicans are backing them. 

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is raising the issue with constituents while Congress is in its two-week October recess. He called on Pelosi to “quit playing politics” with the deal at a Pewaukee Chamber of Commerce meeting last week and is urging Wisconsin Democrats to press her to call it up for a vote. “Ratify it,” he said in an interview.

Wisconsin Republican Reps. Bryan Steil and Glenn Grothman, meanwhile, are participating in a social media campaign launched by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging lawmakers to build support for the “new NAFTA” this fall.

Bryan Steil campaigning with Paul Ryan in 2018. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“If #USMCA was brought to the House floor for a vote, it would pass,” Steil recently tweeted. “Congress needs to act. The USMCA is a win for workers and for America”.

The state’s other GOP lawmakers — retiring Rep. James Sensenbrenner and Rep. Mike Gallagher — also support the agreement.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer submitted a draft plan of action to the House in May and has since met with Democratic lawmakers to address their concerns about enforcement of new labor and environmental standards and protections for the pharmaceutical industry that they say would lead to higher prescription drug prices.

Proponents say the “new NAFTA” would support farmers and other workers in the dairy industry and other sectors in Wisconsin, which exports $11 billion in goods and services every year to Canada and Mexico.

But critics in Wisconsin and elsewhere are pressing for major overhauls to the deal. 

In addition to labor and environmental concerns, they object to provisions that would increase protections for the pharmaceutical industry — a “giveaway” that they say would harm farmers in particular because they are often self-employed. 

Farmers are also worried about the lack of country-of-origin labeling provisions that would ensure that products that are grown, raised and slaughtered in the United States can be identified as such, and that would prevent the United States from dumping excess products into foreign countries at below-market prices.

Jim Goodman, an ex-farmer in southwestern Wisconsin and president of the National Family Farm Coalition, said the bill “needs to be changed.”

Sarah Lloyd of the Wisconsin Farmers Union

Sarah Lloyd, a farmer in Columbia County and director of special projects at the National Farmers Union, agreed. In its current form, the agreement would be “sealing the deal on the demise of family farmers,” she said.

An open door

Pelosi is leaving the door open to a deal, telling reporters last week that its path forward will not be affected by the impeachment proceedings against Trump. If approved, the agreement would hand Trump a significant trade victory leading into an election year — but would also allow Democrats to show they are willing to work across the aisle while managing a highly partisan impeachment process.  

Sen. Tammy Baldwin and other Wisconsin Democrats — still smarting from the loss of jobs they say were caused by NAFTA — are not yet sold.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Sen. Tammy Baldwin

“We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes with this new deal,” she said in a statement. “The final legislation needs to be a fair trade deal that stops the outsourcing of our Made in Wisconsin manufacturing jobs to other countries.”

Democrat Gwen Moore has also expressed concerns about the deal. I “will not be pressured or rushed to approve the USMCA,” she said in May

Even Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind – a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a pro-trade bloc of moderate Democrats, and vice chairman of its task force on trade – is withholding his support. In July, he said no “meaningful progress” had been made to address concerns with the deal and left his name off of a letter Democrats sent to Pelosi calling for a vote before the end of the year.

Congressman Ron Kind

“He’s usually pushing hard for any kind of quote-unquote free trade agreement,” said David Newby, president of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition. It’s “refreshing” to see he has “held the line.”

At the same time, Wisconsin Democrats acknowledge the political sensitivities around opposing a deal that would update NAFTA — which critics say led to job losses, lower wages, and higher unemployment in Wisconsin and around the country. 

The president won Wisconsin in 2016 in part by “talking tough” about trade – by promising to bring back jobs lost by bad trade deals in the past, Democrat Mark Pocan – co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – said earlier this year. “The problem is that rhetoric and how the president is actually executing trade couldn’t be farther apart.”

Pocan called the deal “incomplete” when it was announced last year.

Still, fair trade activists are holding out hope for a deal they can support. “They’re still talking, they’re still negotiating, which is why there’s some reason for hope,” Newby said.

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