DES MOINES — With Iowa’s agriculture economy hanging in the balance, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley spent a chunk of his day Wednesday working to ensure the preservation of a key international trade agreement.
Grassley was among a group of U.S. senators who met with and discussed trade policy with President Donald Trump.
Grassley said he planned to use the opportunity to encourage the president to preserve the elements of the North American Free Trade Agreement that benefit U.S. farmers.
Earlier Wednesday, Grassley discussed trade policy with Iowa agricultural leaders in a telephone conference call.
Grassley told the ag leaders he has been pressing the administration to be careful when negotiating NAFTA, the trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, so as to not disrupt the U.S. and Iowa’s ag economies. Grassley said he recently urged caution to the president’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, and to commerce secretary Wilbur Ross.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities to put in our oar, to tell people close to the president that the president is going to hurt agriculture if he pulled out of NAFTA,” Grassley said.
On the conference call, five Iowa ag leaders thanked Grassley for his advocacy on trade and encouraged him to continue pressing the administration. The call was organized by Americans for Farmers and Families, a coalition of agriculture interests that is advocating for the preservation of NAFTA.
Ed Wiederstein, an Iowa farmer and former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, said withdrawing from NAFTA would be devastating to the state’s ag producers at a time when crop prices are already low and many are having a difficult time making a profit.
“If this trade agreement would go away, man, a lot of the profit is going to go away,” Wiederstein said. “It’s just super important that we maintain NAFTA.”
While running for president in 2016, Trump regularly said he would renegotiate many of the international trade deals in which the U.S. participates, or withdraw the U.S. from the deals altogether. He already has made good on one such trade deal: immediately after stepping into office he withdrew the U.S. from negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Grassley said while he can make no guarantees, he thinks Trump’s view on NAFTA is softening.
“I have felt some moderation of the president’s position since he was a candidate,” Grassley said. “I sense that it’s getting through to him how bad it would be to pull out of NAFTA.”
Grassley said he planned to tell Trump that withdrawing from NAFTA would upset the economy and undo goodwill built up by the recent tax cut bill, and remind the president that Iowa and other agriculture-heavy states helped elect him in 2016.
“It’s been a drought for Republican presidential candidates in Iowa, and he’s brought great, refreshing water to that field,” Grassley said. “And he would hurt very definitely if he would pull out of NAFTA.”
But Grassley also predicted because of the Trump administration’s negotiating strategy it will be difficult to know in advance whether it will withdraw from NAFTA.
“We’ll probably come to the cliff before you know one way or the other that its not going to happen, because they think that’s their strongest bargaining tool,” Grassley said.