A National Press Club invite to see senior advisors – all with impressive resumes – from the three presidential campaigns talk about trade issues in the wake of the NAFTA uproar a few weeks ago!  How could I possibly turn that down?

 

Senator McCain’s representative was of course the most boring.  Though one shouldn’t oversell the benefits, the apparent Republican nominee is all for free trade and its prevailing gains, doesn’t want debates over the environment (where he has a strong record) and labor (where he feels economic engagement is at least as important as legal provisions) to get in the way of the big picture, and wants to modernize our training assistance programs for the unemployed.  Concern was also expressed at how NAFTA is being demonized, with “all responsible studies” highlighting it as a tremendous win for the three countries.  The assembled trade wonks in the room quickly applauded their approval before sharpening their pencils, for naturally it was the others that we had really come to see.

 

Senator Obama’s man (they were all men actually) characterized his candidate’s views as pro-trade and consistent, but declared that the trade policies pursued by the U.S. have not been well achieved and the American people have been kept out of the process.  These trade agreements are thick documents that insider business lobbyists have filled with special provisions that no one knows about (never mind the Federal Register comment process and Congressional reviews, plus the reality that it’s the isolationists who usually want the detailed language).  Labor and environmental provisions need to be added so that workers around the world will benefit.  All policies pursued need to be “sustainable” (a word he repeated several times in different contexts), and we need to address the fact that our free trade partners are all too often not heeding their commitments.  A damaging result has been global imbalances, which incidentally have been made worse by China’s persistent currency manipulation.  As for NAFTA, it contains a supranational appeals body that gives foreigners the right to trump the U.S. legal system.  And if elected, the Senator would call the leaders of Canada of Mexico about adding labor and environmental provisions – in light of the “asymmetry that jumps out at the American public”.

 

Along the same lines, Senator Clinton’s speaker noted that trade is just one piece of her overall economic policy.  She’s focused on what’s happening to middle-income Americans and believes that things are not working right in this country today.  We need a vibrant innovation and science agenda, better education, robust job initiatives, personal and governmental savings, a real focus on energy policy (lowering energy imports by two-thirds by 2020), and fair, pro-American trade.  She would reassess all our current Free Trade Agreements upon taking office, would want to change NAFTA to include labor and environmental provisions in the main agreement (rather than in the side agreements that Bill Clinton was successfully able to add), as well as strengthen the enforcement mechanisms and end the legal appeals advantages for foreign investors.  Indeed, the U.S. needs a Senate-confirmed enforcement officer whose job is to take cases against other countries to the WTO – never mind our strained non-compliance vis-à-vis Canadian wood and Mexican trucking — the current Administration having filed precious few suits over the last seven years.  And to address the skills shortage in this country, we also need to expand our worker retraining programs to essentially include any workers who lose their jobs for any reason. 

 

All very cordially presented, but by this time the audience was chomping at the bit the Q&A:

 

  • Your candidates’ feelings about the three negotiated FTAs (with Colombia, Panama and South Korea) that require Hill ratification?  McCain is for them, the two Democrats against.
  • How is an African cotton grower supposed to believe the U.S. supports free trade when its own domestic cotton industry is subsidized?  McCain’s rep proudly cited his boss’ statement while campaigning in Iowa that U.S. farmers are already quite competitive and that our agricultural programs are very much in need of reform.  Meanwhile, the Democratic presenters noted current World Trade Organization agricultural talks, but cautioned that their candidates would be U.S. presidents negotiating on behalf of the United States.
  • The two Democratic speakers used milder language than their bosses to critique NAFTA, but what would your candidates really do if they didn’t get what they wanted? The Obama rep reiterated that having those provisions is necessary to truly go after violations.  The Clinton rep got out the quote and said she’s been clear: the U.S. would “opt out unless it could renegotiate”.
  • What about that Air Force tanker contract just awarded to Airbus?  Senator Obama was said to be among those questioning it.  With some indignation, Senator McCain’s rep reminded that his boss had uncovered Boeing’s corrupt behavior during the bidding.

 

And then there were some queries that the Democratic speakers never really got around to answering:

 

  • Have the Democratic campaigns done any economic assessments on the consequences of withdrawing from NAFTA?
  • That NAFTA appeals body was added at Washington’s insistence so that U.S. companies could get around the corrupt Mexican legal system.  Are you saying that our companies will now have to go through the Mexican courts?
  • Half of our trade deficit is in oil (with Canada and Mexico currently our #1 and #2 providers) and much of the rest is with industrial economies, so how do these labor and environmental provisions really help?
  • And Are you for consumption taxes? Actually Senator Obama’s speaker did answer this one, but his answer about needing a “sustainable tax policy in key with an overall sustainable economic policy” left me panting.

 

The audience was still just getting into it and there were many, many more questions to ask.  But our time was up, so I contented myself with the fresh air and light rain on the way back, finally able to open my umbrella.

 


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