A Bad Trade


Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly press conference yesterday that a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was “imminent,” and that it would serve as a template for future trade deals. Without seeing the final agreement, which has been subject to haggling between House Democrats and the U.S. trade representative’s (USTR) office, it’s hard to say whether that prospect is cheering. But it’s clear that whatever agreement gets reached will have been driven by politics rather than substance.

The clamor among freshman swing-seat Democrats to put USMCA up for a vote has reached epidemic proportions. And the rationale has nothing to do with raising labor standards for Mexican workers or improving our manufacturing competitiveness, or farm exports. It’s just, bluntly, “We need to show that we can do something.” That’s a direct quote from Henry Cuellar (D-TX), one of the 11 centrist Democrats who signed a letter to USTR undermining the Democratic position to remove rigid patent protections for high-cost prescription drugs. Ben McAdams (D-UT), another signee, gave virtually the same quote to The Wall Street Journal.

The tell here is that the members engaged in the actual House Democrats’ negotiating with USTR are “less than confident” about an imminent deal. All the chatter is coming from the business-friendly swing-seaters who want to do something to say that they did something, and Nancy Pelosi, who sees those business-friendly swing-seaters as the only members who matter. It’s been reported that Cheri Bustos, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has been pressuring the leadership for a USMCA vote.

The short-term thinking here is really harmful. If there’s any voter alive who thinks, “Well I wasn’t going to vote for this Democrat, but the USMCA passed so now he’s OK,” I’d like to meet them. I was at an event in D.C. where Pelosi spoke this week, and she ran through her priorities for the rest of the year—there was applause for lowering drug prices, applause for election security, and dead silence when she said, “We’re going to pass the USMCA!”

Meanwhile, in trade deals the details matter, and there’s no indication yet that the weak labor controls in the USMCA—under the initial language, the murder of a union activist may not qualify as a violation of the agreement, because it didn’t occur “periodically and repeatedly”—have been fixed to any legitimate degree. In fact, Mexican trade unionists continue to be murdered. The legacy of getting this wrong will linger long beyond next November.

On one side you have the Problem Solvers Caucus, nervous freshmen, Richie Neal, Cheri Bustos, and innumerable corporate lobbyists. On the other side you have labor and access-to-medicine groups. Who will Pelosi choose?


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Thanks to everyone who came out to our event in D.C. this week with The American Conservative, “The Bipartisanship America Needs: Left-Right Convergence on Confronting Monopoly Power.” We will have video at prospect.org soon.


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