Trump’s New Trade Deal: NAFTA with Lipstick

Half a cow pie sandwich is better than a whole one, right?  

That seems to be the gist of the argument among progressives for Trump’s supposed renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. 

Trump is calling the new agreement “USMCA,” which stands for United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Nevermind that the U.S. Marines Corps has had dibs on the USMC acronym for more than 200 years. Perhaps wanting to impress on people how he’d cremated the 2,000-page, twenty-two chapter NAFTA and shot its ashes into space, Trump decided a new name was in order.  

Noticeably absent in the new name are the trigger words “free trade.”

While Trump has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever negotiated,” he describes the “historic” USMCA as a “wonderful new trade deal” that “changes the trade landscape forever.”

In reality, though, the USMCA is longer than NAFTA, and for a good reason: It is NAFTA, with some minor amendments and a nice giveaway to big pharma.

U.S. Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin and co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, has described USMCA as “NAFTA 1.5, ” and only “marginally” different than its predecessor. 

Yet the buzz inside the Beltway is that “centrist” Democrats are desperate to pass the USMCA as a signal to voters that they are getting things done and not singularly focused on impeachment.

According to The Hill, “the drop in support for impeachment in the polls is increasing pressure on Democrats to strike a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).” The news outlet added, “Democrats want progress on a popular bipartisan issue that could help assuage moderate voters.” 

Yes, the Democrats are sinking in the impeachment quicksand and the only thing that can save them is the USMCA lifeline!

In fact, polling on impeachment has held steady, with around 50 percent of the country in favor. That’s no small feat. In the 1970s, even after eighteen months of Watergate hearings, Gallup didn’t find more than 50 percent in favor of impeachment until after Nixon had resigned.  

Gallup recently analyzed how Americans view Trump on trade and found that “the net effect of Trump’s pluses and minuses on trade is that his approval rating for how he is handling foreign trade tracks closely with his overall job rating.” It noted that Trump’s approval rating is at 39 percent, “most likely meaning his rating on trade is also down and only reducing what political leverage he might have with reluctant Democrats” over passage of USMCA.  

According to the group Public Citizen, big pharma is enamored of USMCA because it “would lock in high U.S. medicine prices.”

Trump, Gallup adds, “may be in sync with Americans when he expresses the strong desire to renegotiate trade deals so they are more favorable to U.S. interests.” But because he “lacks a major legislative success in this arena,” he “earns no approval premium on trade.”

The Democrats, meanwhile, have their own bad reasons for backing USMCA.

As The Intercept recently reported, under the tongue-in-cheek headline, “CENTRIST DEMOCRATS HAVE A NEW IDEA TO WIN REELECTION: IGNORE LABOR AND GIVE TRUMP A MAJOR TRADE DEAL.” 

The article said that U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos, Democrat of Illinois and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is the ringleader behind the effort and “is advocating internally for Democrats to wave through the House President Donald Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA, without any of the revisions demanded by labor unions and environmentalists—and despite concerns that it locks in high prescription drug prices.”

The article also reported that  Representative Richard Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, “has been making a similar argument to Bustos’s, but less for protection of vulnerable members and more because he believes that the deal is good enough. Unions, he has argued internally, will just have to go along.”

It gets worse. Democratic presidential front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden’s top campaign pollster is also employed by “Trade Works for America,” a dark money group set up with funding “from the pharmaceutical industry, oil and gas, the automotive and agricultural sectors, and traditional GOP donors.” The group’s leader, longtime GOP political operative Phil Cox, says it intends “to look closely at freshman Democrats in traditional Republican and Trump districts and also Republican members who voted against TPA [Trade Promotion Authority] who may need some encouragement.”

Although the group is co-chaired by former Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and purports to just want to create jobs and help farmers, a review of ProPublica’s lobbyists database reveals that most of the lobbyists working for Trade Works are simultaneously registered to lobby for various tentacles of the pharmaceutical industry. 

According to the group Public Citizen, big pharma is enamored of USMCA because it “would lock in high U.S. medicine prices,” which are already too high, and essentially “charge more in all three NAFTA countries.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s main stated reason for opposing NAFTA—the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico— remains unchanged in any fundamental way by the new pact.  And his second best selling point that it will “greatly open markets” is just silly:  Canada has only agreed to open 3.59% of their dairy market and they had already agreed to this marginal increase as part of President Barack Obama’s TPP negotiations.

This nothing burger was secured by Trump in his trade war with Mexico and Canada at great cost to ordinary Americans. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin, for example, were hit hard when Mexico, the U.S.’s #1 dairy export market, imposed steep tariffs on cheese. That contributed to Wisconsin leading the nation in farm bankruptcies.

But Trump needs a campaign promise trophy and corporate Democrats are desperate for some big pharma campaign cash.

Everybody wins, except the American people.

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