In his Greenville Convention Center speech Tuesday, Donald Trump made his most powerful economic argument when he said, “There will be consequences when companies leave North Carolina. If they knew there was retribution, if they knew there were consequences, they wouldn’t even be thinking about it.”
Voters who think our trade agreements should be revisited should understand the history of how we got to where we are. President Ronald Reagan began our nation’s adoption of unregulated free international trade with the 1984 Trade and Tariff Act, which gave him the power to make free trade agreements. Congress could only approve or disapprove, but not modify, any agreement he made. Ever since, Republicans have wanted to expand unregulated free trade even more.
It was President George H.W. Bush who, on Dec. 17, 1992, signed the NAFTA agreement with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mexican President Carlos Salinas. In 1993, a conservative-dominated Congress ratified it. Only then did a new President Bill Clinton sign it into law.
NAFTA was a Republican creation, not President Clinton’s, although he was persuaded that it had adequate benefits and protections for workers and he lobbied for its passage. The manifest result, however, was it gave corporations and their investors the power to pit nations against each other in providing the lowest-wage workers, with the fewest labor rights. It was supported by most Republicans in Congress and a small number of conservative Democrats. Its major opponents were labor unions and most Democrats.
Although Trump became much wealthier by taking every advantage of free trade agreements, he now promises to revise them in ways that would penalize those who do it in the future. Hillary Clinton originally supported all trade agreements, but has recently opposed TPP, and has pledged to revisit all trade agreements to make sure they don’t unfairly penalize working Americans and businesses that stay in the U.S.
Most Republicans in Congress have always been committed to unregulated free trade and oppose Trump on this issue. On the other hand, most Democrats in Congress, like Bernie Sanders, have opposed it in the past and are committed to making sure Clinton lives up to her campaign promises about trade.
If renegotiating trade deals is an important issue to workers, they’d better vote for congressional candidates who were philosophically against unregulated free trade in the past. It’s still a divisive issue, and no president can do it without support – or pressure – from Congress.
Chuck Kelly is a Charlotte author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org