It was a startling juxtaposition Tuesday. On the same morning that House Democrats were announcing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was declaring that Democrats and the White House had reached an agreement on a new North American Free Trade Agreement.
Apparently, Congress and the White House can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Republicans, especially in farm states like Iowa and Illinois, have been calling for months for the new NAFTA trade deal (now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) to be taken up for a vote. As it has idled, they have argued that impeachment was getting in the way, that the real business of the country wasn’t getting done. Democrats, on the other hand, said they had real problems with the pact that the White House negotiated with the foreign governments and wanted changes.
Democrats had objected to language pertaining to labor and environmental rules. There also were concerns about how the agreement among the three countries would affect prescription drugs. Democrats fought against that language in the deal, arguing it would make health care more expensive. In the end, the provision was removed, according to reports.
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We think the announcement Tuesday is a remarkable testament to the ability of both sides, even in the midst of the impeachment war, to find common ground on what has been itself a very contentious issue.
It is no secret that many Democrats, particularly in the party's progressive wing, can’t stand NAFTA. That the party’s leadership and the White House could settle their differences and come to an agreement is quite the political accomplishment. And it’s not just the Democrats that are signing on. It is notable that the AFL-CIO, long a NAFTA critic, has endorsed the new compromise, too.
The White House, eager for a win, appears to have been flexible enough on the issue to gain the Democrats’ support. The president has made stronger trade deals a major campaign promise, and this is something he can take to the campaign trail. To date, his trade policy has lacked a big win.
We haven’t seen the language of the agreement yet. Our view has been that the revised NAFTA presented by the White House wasn’t all that different than the old NAFTA. Many analysts have made this judgment. So, it will be interesting to see the details of the compromise that, this morning, anyway, was yielding superlatives from both sides. President Trump hailed the deal on Twitter, saying it is the "best and most important trade deal ever made by the USA." Pelosi, meanwhile, says the agreement is "much better" than the Clinton-era NAFTA and "infinitely better" than what the White House proposed.
We in the Quad-Cities and the surrounding region have lived with, and argued over, NAFTA for decades. Farm and free trade groups tend to praise it. NAFTA has undoubtedly been good for farmers. But labor unions and some advocacy groups have vilified it. They have blamed the pact for pushing jobs over the border to Mexico or other low-cost countries. As we say, these arguments hit home. The shuttered Maytag plant in Galesburg has become a national symbol of the fallout from NAFTA. (Interestingly, a Congressional Research Service study in 2013 said NAFTA caused neither huge losses nor huge gains in the United States.)
It wasn’t all long ago that President Trump threatened to kill NAFTA if Mexico and Canada didn't agree to changes – something that undoubtedly would have thrown the trade-reliant economies of Iowa, Illinois and the Quad-Cities into chaos. Now, it appears this is no longer a threat, that the president and Congress have come up with an agreement satisfactory to both sides. We are encouraged that even in this poisonous political environment, the two sides can find common ground on something important to our economy.