Many in the media have asserted that Donald Trump is against free trade. But as president, Trump has stood with Republicans who support free and fair trade and has repeatedly called for future trade deals to be fair.
In his recent State of the Union address President Trump articulated a sensible path forward:
From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal. We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones. And we will protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules.
As America considers its future in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), this instinct will serve the country well. That is why the best policy for the United States is to modernize, rather than withdraw from, NAFTA.
NAFTA is critically important for our nation — especially for our farmers. For instance, before NAFTA was implemented, Mexico imported 11.5 million bushels of wheat on average from the United States. That number increased to 110.2 million bushels once NAFTA was put into place. To put that into perspective, that would equal around 4.6 billion loaves of bread. The Kansas Association of Wheat Growers reports that “in 2016, almost 30 million bushels of wheat went by shuttle train straight from the Kansas countryside across the border into Mexico.”
With exports like that, it is easy to see why NAFTA is vital to Kansas and many of the agricultural states across America. Agriculture employs more than 70,000 Kansans and impacts our economy by almost $20 billion. Mexico is largest customer for our farmers, followed closely by Canada. Combined, these two countries make up 36 percent of all the international business done by Kansas companies. In terms of total value, all Kansas agricultural exports are worth $3.7 4 billion, most of which goes to our North American neighbors.
Other key industries in our state also depend on trade. In fact, wheat is only the second most valuable international export from Kansas, trailing behind airplanes. More than 67 percent of the world’s embedded general aviation fleet has been manufactured in Kansas, particularly by my constituents in the Kansas Fourth District. As Bryan Riley, a native Kansan, points out in his research for the Heritage Foundation, 41 percent of exports from Kansas are shipped to people in countries that have trade agreements with the U.S. The hard truth of these facts is that withdrawing from NAFTA would devastate Kansas businesses and put many of my constituents out of work.
While NAFTA has benefited many Americans, much has changed in the 24 years since it went into effect, leaving parts of the trade deal in need of modernization. The three economies included in NAFTA — the United States, Canada, and Mexico — are very different today than they were in 1993. Most notably, the internet has shifted how many industries function and created many forms of commerce that did not previously exist. It is important to recognize these changes and find solutions that work for the hard-working Americans they have affected, sometimes negatively, or else risk more calls to withdraw from NAFTA entirely.
Such calls not only threaten to undo the benefits that trade deals such NAFTA bring to the American people, they also ignore the likely consequences. Withdrawing from NAFTA would raise prices in Mexico for imported American goods, including commodities such as corn. Inflicting such economic hardship on both Mexico and our country would also create unnecessary pressure on our immigration system at an inopportune time. This would be a lose-lose for our both nations. Modernizing NAFTA, on the other hand, would be a win-win.
The president tapped into understandable frustration with politicians who signed the United States up for trade deals that were not always free or fair. And his administration is right to focus on creating an environment that fosters job growth and attracts jobs from overseas by removing needless regulations and by reforming our tax code. These are the policies that lower unemployment and put dollars in the pockets American families. By also modernizing trade deals such as NAFTA — keeping the parts that work and fixing those that don’t — we can help ensure American prosperity for years to come. Kansans know that NAFTA isn’t the problem. But modernizing it can certainly be part of the solution.
As we consider modernizing these trade deals, however, we should keep in mind that the interconnectedness of today’s global economy — especially in our hemisphere — is the product of American ingenuity and innovation. It should therefore be a source of pride. Moreover, these trends are likely to accelerate. Instead of slamming the brakes, the administration should put Americans in the driver seat by expanding free and fair trade for everyone.
Rep. Ron Estes represents Kansas’s 4th congressional district.