During his final year in office as a U.S. senator, the late Ernest "Fritz" Hollings in 2003 remained true to his long-standing position that so-called "free trade" was killing U.S. jobs and putting the nation at risk.
The South Carolina Democrat decried "permanent normal trade relations” with China and presidential "fast-track" authority when others would not. He was labeled protectionist during an era when Republican and Democratic presidents were willing to see entire segments of U.S. manufacturing crippled by foreign competition and U.S. businesses moving jobs overseas.
Hollings rightly said "free trade" was anything but free.
The senator was an opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada long before it became law. He warned of its negative impact on the U.S.
Hollings was right about NAFTA and U.S. trade policy.
President Donald Trump won office on a promise to change trade policies and has pursued such change amid considerable skepticism.
Some call his policies regarding China little more than a trade war, though increasingly there is acknowledgement from even the most ardent "free traders" among Republicans that trade with China was too much of a one-way street that did not favor the U.S.
And Trump made clear he was going to do away with NAFTA and renegotiate trade with Canada and Mexico to create a level playing field. He did so, with the pending United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement the result.
Amid constant criticism of Trump on just about every front, USMCA is quietly supported by experts and people on both sides of the political equation.
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But that does not mean it will get approval. Democrats in Congress are busy with impeachment and appear unwilling to approve USMCA amid an election campaign.
Bipartisan voices are urging Congress to act.
Gary Locke, a Democrat, served as governor of Washington, U.S. ambassador to China and secretary of commerce. Erik Paulsen, a Republican, represented Minnesota in the U.S. House from 2009 to 2019. They serve as honorary co-chairmen of the Pass USMCA Coalition.
They write: "NAFTA needed to be modernized and the USMCA is a 21st-century upgrade that benefits all Americans. It includes pro-growth reforms that sustain businesses while bolstering labor and environmental protections. We know our former colleagues and friends on both sides of the aisle value American workers over partisan politics. They can prove us right by passing USMCA quickly."
Among USMCA benefits they cite:
• Boosting America's farmers, particularly by Canada raising import quotas for a variety of U.S. agricultural products, including dairy, poultry, eggs and sugar.
• Sustaining America's 30 million small businesses. It establishes special legal protections for small firms and removes outdated red tape that governs cross-border sales.
• Stopping other countries from stealing our intellectual property and trade secrets.
• Implementing labor provisions that will protect American jobs, especially in the auto manufacturing industry. The deal requires that manufacturers make 75% of auto parts in North America to escape tariffs.
In 2003 we wrote: "Call Hollings protectionist if you will, but if more lawmakers don't show a willingness to draw a line on 'free trade,' more sectors of American business and industry are going to be crippled or wiped out."
The same is true today.
As Locke and Paulsen state: "There's no reason for Democrats or Republicans to delay any longer. It's time for Congress to come together and pass USMCA as quickly as possible."