On November 19th, 2019, the US House passed H.R.5430, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement Implementation Act, by a lopsided 385-41 margin. Even some surprising characters have voiced support for the USMCA, including Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and Connecticut 3rd District Representative Rosa DeLauro, who regularly oppose free trade deals. By contrast, the original North American Free Trade Implementation Act in 1993 (NAFTA) passed by a slimmer 235-200 margin. Even bilateral free trade agreements with developed nations like Singapore (2003), Chile (2003), and Australia (2004) received over 100 votes against. The USMCA’s large margin of passage speaks to widespread acceptance of the deal’s contents, which include changes to NAFTA bolstering Mexican workers’ rights, opening up Canada to American milk, and bolstering auto-part domestic content requirements.
That said, trade is complex; it’s tough to sort out the political impacts sometimes. For example, one of Congress’ more vocal supporters of free trade, Congressman Ron Kind, represents a Southwest Wisconsin district that protectionist President Donald Trump also carried.
However, 41 votes against in the House speaks to at least pockets of opposition, which are worth examining. Is the coalition opposing trade today the same as it used to be, composed primarily of blue-collar representatives and urban members of Congress?
Old Guard Protectionists
The old-guard protectionists are those Representatives who can be reliably expected to vote against free trade deals. A number of these members voted against normalization of trade relations with China back in 2000 and NAFTA in 1993 (Kaptur, Pallone, Visclosky). What unites these members is a commitment to fair trade fueled largely by a populist streak and districts which faced the brunt of outsourcing and automation.
One notable but utterly unshocking vote was Marcy Kaptur’s vote against the USMCA. Marcy Kaptur has been one of Congress’ staunchest opponents of free trade deals for decades, one of the main crusaders against NAFTA in 1993. In 1996, wildcard independent protectionist Ross Perot even considered her as a vice presidential pick! Kaptur represents a struggling manufacturing-heavy district anchored by Toledo, Ohio and is the longest serving female member of the House. Kaptur once even called New York City “the big financier of outsourcing”, interesting considering that multiple New York representatives voted against this deal.
Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio and Indiana Representative Pete Visclosky similarly share a history of standing with organized labor against free trade agreements. Immediately following the 2016 State of the Union Address, DeFazio criticized President Obama’s support for the Trans Pacific Partnership as “cognitive dissonance in his speech” and “pretty typical Obama”. DeFazio and Visclosky’s district have both been negatively impacted by trade squabbles. Since the 1970s, Visclosky’s district has been stricken by the protracted decades-long decline of the steel industry. This led Gary, the district’s centerpiece, to collapse from nearly 200,000 residents to approximately 75,000 in 50 years. Across the country, in DeFazio’s district, which hugs the Pacific coast, softwood lumber disputes have generated anxiety about global trade.
Frank Pallone’s record includes votes against NAFTA, the US-Caribbean Trade Partnership Act, the Andean Trade Preference Act, and numerous similar deals. Barack Obama won the 6th district by a 24 point margin in 2012, while Hillary Clinton carried it by a still-comfortable 15 point margin in 2016. Central New Jersey might not look like Northwest Ohio or Northwest Indiana, but it nonetheless suffered from deindustrialization over the decades. That said, it’s also a dynamic, diverse district propelled by research and innovation at Rutgers and elsewhere, so certainly not a rust belt area.
Additionally, while Representative Jared Golden, a class of 2018 House Freshman, is anything but “old-guard”, his blue-collar district, filled with struggling mill towns, resembles the working class districts some of the old-guard types represent. From 1990-2013, Maine’s pulp mill jobs declined by 66%, fueled by lower demand for paper and foreign competition from countries like China.
Thus, the old-guard of protectionists from blue-collar post-industrial districts, the chief opposition to past deals, remains intact. However, votes in favor from Matt Cartwright, who represents Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, PA and Tim Ryan, who opposed fast tracking other deals and represents Youngstown, OH, suggest a weaker incentive to vote against the USMCA than other deals. This might reflect the fact that the USMCA was negotiated by a protectionist administration, or the fact that the AFL-CIO, one of America’s largest unions, supports the deal. During the time of NAFTA, representatives from rust belt towns like these united largely in opposition to the deal.
Two votes came from Congress’ ostensibly two most libertarian representatives (with a third from a freedom caucus libertarian-leaner). Generally, libertarianism lends itself to free trade, although there are exceptoions. Take Ron Paul, godfather of today’s Congressional liberty-lovers. Paul opposed deals like the TPP, which he blamed for creating global government, while supporting free trade conceptually. Libertarians tend to support the free flow of goods in international commerce, but they also worry about American sovereignty at times. So why did the two (and a half) libertarian House members vote no on the USMCA?
Independent Justin Amash of Michigan (formerly a Republican, and a Freedom Caucus founder at that) voted against the USMCA on a conventionally libertarian basis. He decried it as only increasing trade barriers and undermining the Constitution. Other right-wing economic groups like Freedomworks, a tea-party holdover, stated that USMCA includes a “clear increase in protectionist measures”. This makes sense with Trump’s frequent promises to protect American goods, markets, and sovereignty. Amash wasn’t the only one in Washington echoing this line of opposition to the deal; Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey bashed the USMCA in a Wall Street Journal editorial, calling it “antitrade”. It’s clear that the hardcore free-traders found bones to pick with the deal.
What about Massie though? Usually, engineer Thomas Massie is lumped in with Justin Amash as one of the few truly libertarian-leaning members of the House. Not only has he at times described himself as a libertarian leaning Republican, but Massie addressed the International Students for Liberty Conference in 2016 and even introduced a bill to end the Department of Education. While his party affiliation remains Republican, Massie often opposes otherwise uncontroversial (within his party) measures like an anti-Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) bill, a robocall deterrence act, disaster relief, etc. But, his opposition to the USMCA was… protectionist?
In early December, Massie paired up with Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree to write a letter to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer asking for the USMCA to allow for country-of-origin labels on imported meat. To some, this is an issue of consumer choice and the ability to buy American, especially important in light of food safety scandals in countries like China. However, in 2015 the World Trade Organization ruled against American country of origin labeling rules for meat, calling them unfair burdens on trade. On December 19th, Rep. Massie tweeted that “consumers and farmers lost out” with the USMCA’s passage due to a lack of labelling provisions. He noted in a Fox News interview that “over 50% of the USMCA is the TPP” and proclaimed that it was “written by lobbyists”. Far from libertarian free trade rhetoric indeed. Weird representatives will be weird.
Then there was Ted Yoho, the Florida Congressman once described as a “Republiban with a libertarian slant”. A member of the Freedom Caucus, this retiring representative nonetheless doesn’t stick out as much as Amash and Massie often do. Nonetheless, his vote may have seemed surprising at first. Unlike Amash and Massie, it was specifically related to local concerns. His opposition to the deal came from supposedly lacking protection for Florida orange growers against Mexican producers. His central Florida district aligns nicely with one of America’s top orange-producing areas. Plus, his impending retirement might lessen the consequences of bucking his party to be one of two GOP Representatives opposing the deal.
New Left Progressives
Another set of “no” votes can be described as the new left progressives, headlined by the “Squad”, composed of the Bronx’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Minneapolis’ Ilhan Omar, Boston’s Ayanna Pressley, and Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib. Other ostensible members include Mark Pocan, from Milwaukee, and Pramila Jayapal, from Seattle. At the time, many seemed more focused on impeachment than the trade deal, but those who spoke out against it, like Rashida Tlaib, AOC, and Mark Pocan cited mainly environmental, pharmaceutical, and workers’ rights concerns. These left-wing, younger members focus on some of the spinoff impacts of the trade deal more than pure outsourcing concerns shared by the old-guard. Of course, environmental concern united many USMCA opponents, but Tlaib and co melded protectionism into their overall leftist message. This isn’t new to the “squad”. The Progressive Caucus has for a while now advocated changes to NAFTA and opposed TPP earlier this decade. Labor, environmental, and job loss concerns fueled historic progressive opposition to trade deals and it seems that trend will continue with some of the young leftist members rising within the Democratic Party.
Urban Fair Traders
Another grouping of anti-USMCA votes came from a group I call the urban fair traders. Members of this diverse group include Nanette Barragan, from Los Angeles; Adriano Espillat from New York; Chuy Garcia from Chicago; Nydia Velasquez from New York; Eliot Engel, from New York; Lacy Clay, from Kansas City Missouri; and a few others. There’s some crossover between this group and the old guard protectionists, including Barbara Lee, the notably left-wing member from Oakland, California.
There’s a history of urban representatives, especially those representing communities of color, opposing free trade agreements. Interestingly, most of the Black Caucus in 1993 voted against NAFTA, citing job losses in urban areas as well as the deal potentially shifting trade away from the Carribean countries. Some activists suggest that job loss ostensibly linked to globalization and automation hollowed out urban Black communities worse than others; Congressman GK Butterfield stated that his constituents remembered the loss of textile jobs post-NAFTA and no Black Caucus members voted to grant George W. Bush trade promotion authority in 2002. It’s not just the Black Caucus; of those opposing the USMCA, Representatives Engel and Velasquez (along with Barbara Lee) also voted against normalizing trade with China.
Today, some of these members, like Eliot Engel and Yvette Clark, also face primary challengers from the new left in the mold of AOC. This is what makes them different from the progressive caucus/squad members who opposed the deal. Many are more center-left and associated with what some might call the Democratic establishment, backing Clinton over Bernie in 2016 in numerous cases.
That said, the concerns motivating this group were diverse. Engel cited environmental activists as the reason he voted against the deal, maybe a nod to his primary challenge. However, this doesn’t explain all of it. Barragan for example, who isn’t facing a real primary challenge, used the same logic of environmentalism to outline her opposition to the USMCA. Perhaps the concerns coming from urban district representatives now stem from ancillary elements of trade deals like environmental issues and less from the jobs-argument historic big-city NAFTA opponents relied on. This could spell crossover with more left-wing members, but it appears that pro-fair trade sentiment marches on among some center-left representatives, especially those representing urban communities of color.
While the USMCA faced less opposition than previous trade deals, opposition to its passage possibly signals the persistence of protectionism in Congress. As the losses from trade are more concentrated than the large-scale dispersed economic gains, it makes sense that those representing the geographic regions left behind by globalization will recoil against new trade deals. However, the old-guard rust belt and urban center-left opposition to free trade is joined today by new left opposition as well as quirky voices like Libertarians.