In 1992, President George H.W. Bush ceremonially signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, slashing tariffs throughout Canada, Mexico and the United States.
In 2016, the agreement signed by a Texas Republican faces its potential demise through Republican President-elect Donald Trump, elected on a wave of populism in Rust Belt states where free trade is seen as anathema to manufacturing jobs.
Republicans have generally supported free trade and expanding trade agreements for decades.
It was Democrats who vehemently opposed NAFTA in the early 1990s. It was a coalition of labor unions, students and leftists who stormed the streets of Seattle in 1999 to protest the World Trade Organization. And it was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who pushed Hillary Clinton for months during the Democratic presidential primary with his opposition toward the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Texas Republicans in Washington and Austin support free trade, as business interests have claimed the state benefits from close economic ties with Mexico in particular.
“NAFTA is not a dirty word in Texas,” U.S. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said in an interview with the Brookings Institution earlier this year.
But Trump called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever” during the campaign and threatened to hike tariffs on certain Mexican goods, worrying trade associations and business interests.
NAFTA on a net basis has benefited the country and benefited Texas hugely. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, Texas
The Texas Republican Party went one step further, demanding an “immediate withdrawal” from NAFTA in its 2016 platform.
Yet Texas Republicans in Congress, the politicians whom Trump will need to ratify a trade agreement, are hesitant to end a 23-year-old trade deal with a country that shares a 1,254-mile border with their state.
“NAFTA on a net basis has benefited the country and benefited Texas hugely,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, the longest-serving Texas Republican in Congress. “I know the president-elect has some concerns about NAFTA. There’s some industries and areas of the country that have lost jobs. But I don’t have an issue with the president trying to renegotiate and take a second look.”
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Weatherford said, “I’m a free trade guy” but that components of NAFTA were negative.
“NAFTA allows a lot of trucks from Mexico. . . . They can drive through without even being inspected,” Williams said. “That concerns me. But there’s some good things, too. I think you look at it on a piece-by-piece basis, see what you keep and what you can’t keep.”
Williams likened Trump’s approach on NAFTA to the Affordable Care Act, the health care law widely derided by Republicans that Trump has vowed to change, but not fully repeal.
Fort Worth-area Reps. Kenny Marchant, Michael Burgess and Kay Granger declined to comment on the future of trade deals under Trump’s leadership.
We hope that we can find some common ground and move forward, whether it’s NAFTA that needs to be reworked or the TPP needs to be redone. Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening
Texas A&M professor Parr Rosson, an agricultural trade specialist who worked with businesses to implement NAFTA in the 1990s, said NAFTA helped thousands of businesses indirectly.
“Not only does trade result in jobs as far as the flow of the products, there are investments in infrastructure,” Rosson said, adding that manufacturers of freezer equipment benefit when free trade with Mexico allows exporters to ship frozen goods over the southern border.
The Texas Farm Bureau, the largest organization of farmers and ranchers in the state, supports NAFTA along with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is worried about its future under Trump.
“We hope that we can find some common ground and move forward, whether it’s NAFTA that needs to be reworked or the TPP needs to be redone,” said Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening, whose family has been involved in Texas agriculture for 100 years. “We still have some support in Congress and I know we have many in our congressional delegation that are in favor of doing something on trade.”
The bureau says certain agricultural commodities, notably Texas beef cattle, are in high demand in international markets and that trade deals like the TPP allow local businesses to expand their markets worldwide.
“The beef industry in Texas is huge,” Boening said. “The tariffs from Japan alone were going to be substantially reduced on our beef going to Japan for the next 10 to 16 years.”
Despite the potential economic benefits of the TPP to Texas agriculture, business interests and politicians are aware that its passage is unlikely under Trump, who criticized the deal in a infomercial-style video address earlier this week.
“I am going to issue our notification of intent to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potential disaster for our country,” Trump said in the video. “Instead, we will negotiate fair, bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.”
Barton said he would “assume” that Trump would “renegotiate” the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“We have zero or very low import barriers to products and services,” Barton said. “President-elect Trump rightfully doesn’t like the way Obama negotiated.”
Williams wants to see the plan renegotiated on a piecemeal basis in lieu of a large multinational agreement.
“Remember, I’m a car dealer,” Williams said. “I sell cars one car at a time because every deal is different, and every trade deal is different. What’s good for Country A is not good for Country B. If the president wants to negotiate it, that’s fine, but we need to pass it in Congress.”
Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth said the pact was dead due to Trump’s election and that the president-elect “will probably need Democratic votes” to renegotiate trade deals.
“Democrats have been expressing concern about a lot of these trade deals for quite some time,” Veasey said. “TPP . . . it’s just not going to happen now. We can take that off the table. There’s not the will to pass it, even in a majority-Republican House.”
Two Cabinet positions, secretary of commerce and secretary of agriculture, might play big roles in shaping the future of trade deals under Trump, and Texans could occupy those roles in the White House.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is under consideration for both positions and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is being mulled for secretary of agriculture, and both are supporters of free trade.
We need to open up to Cuba. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller
“I want to open up foreign markets to ag commodities,” Miller said in an interview. “There’s not one commodity turning a profit right now. NAFTA needs to be reworked. We don’t need to just throw it away, we need to take that document and improve on it.”
One issue where Miller differs from his potential boss is opening up trade with Cuba, something that agricultural interests in Texas support.
“We need to open up to Cuba,” Miller said. “It’s 90 miles off our coast and they’re buying up all their commodities from Europe. I have been very aggressive on trade and he’s (Trump) known for making great deals.”
Rosson said members of Congress from Texas who once vocally supported free trade might stay quiet until it became apparent which direction Trump was going to take, given that he won the White House with votes from wide swaths of the electorate who did not support trade deals.
“In the near term, it would really help if the executive branch leads on this,” Rosson said. “You hope things kind of go quiet and you don’t have to worry about it for a little while. Who knows what might end up happening?”