In the current political climate, it’s tough to imagine a time when President Barack Obama would have more support from conservative Republicans like Rep. Patrick McHenry, Robert Pittenger and Richard Hudson than from his own Democratic stalwarts such as Reps. Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield and David Price. But that’s the case in North Carolina when it comes to trade.
The Obama administration has dispatched the president’s top lieutenants at the Departments of Agriculture, Labor and Commerce to tout the benefits of trade deals in North Carolina. They’re pushing for a special trade-promotion authority, which would make it easier to pass his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact to expand U.S. business ties in the Pacific Rim.
The president has built a large swath of support in North Carolina, but it’s not in his own party.
“Look, I’ve been highly critical of this president, but when he gets policy right I’m not afraid to support that policy,” said McHenry, who is the Republicans’ chief deputy whip in the House of Representatives . “When a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat agree on an issue, that should be a positive.”
Democrats such as Adams, of Greensboro, Price, of Chapel Hill, and Butterfield, of Wilson, along with national Democrats, are uneasy about the impacts that past trade deals have had on U.S. employment, particularly blue-collar jobs.
Many point to 1994, when U.S. government officials assured that the North American Free Trade Agreement would boost trade with Mexico and create jobs in the United States. But jobs in North Carolina, as in other states with strong textile and manufacturing industries, were devastated. Some critics of trade deals say subsequent pacts with Central American countries and Korea have contributed to the problem.
“TPP is going to make that worse, almost assuredly. Because it’s going to increase trade with low-wage countries, and that’s what puts downward pressure on workers’ wages,” said Robert Scott, director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a research center that promotes the interests of low- and middle-income workers.
North Carolina has lost more than 369,000 manufacturing jobs since 1994, according to the Public Citizen, an advocacy nonprofit that opposes the trade proposals. The Economic Policy Institute found that by 2011, 18,900 jobs had been lost or displaced in North Carolina because of the rise in the trade deficit with Mexico alone since NAFTA was enacted.
Labor groups have referred to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “NAFTA on steroids.”
Economists note globalization as a major contributing factor to job losses. And the North Carolina textile industry’s struggles began years before NAFTA was signed. But the trade deal didn’t appear to help.
Neither Adams, Butterfield nor Price have said they’d support the trade proposals now being discussed in Congress.
Price, whose liberal district also includes high-tech companies supporting the proposal, said he was continuing to evaluate the proposals. Butterfield wasn’t available for an interview, but he was one of 151 Democrats who signed a letter late last year opposing the special trade-promotion authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Adams said she hadn’t decided on the trade pact, but she cites NAFTA in her opposition to giving Obama special authority.
“While I realize that American companies must remain competitive in a global economy and marketplace, my top priority is making sure jobs are protected here at home,” she said in a statement. “Past free-trade agreements, like NAFTA, have had devastating effects on North Carolinians.”
U.S. businesses exported $2.35 trillion in goods last year, including $31.3 billion from North Carolina and $29.7 billion from South Carolina, according to the White House. North Carolina agriculture exports exceeded $3.7 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
North Carolina State University economist Michael Walden said North Carolina was clearly affected by the trade pacts of the 1990s and 2000s. Tens of thousands of textile jobs were lost.
“Many rural and small town communities have still not recovered,” he said in an email conversation.
But he said the North Carolina economy had changed. Manufacturing is using more technology and less labor.
“The trade pacts currently under discussion could actually help N.C., mainly in the technology and agricultural industries by opening foreign markets to those products,” he said.
Pittenger, of Charlotte, said the president should be given the freedom to negotiate trade agreements, but under broad parameters set by Congress.
Hudson, of Concord, served as a congressional staffer – the district director for former Republican Rep. Robin Hayes – when Kannapolis textile giant Pillowtex shut down in 2003. At the time, it was the biggest one-day job loss in North Carolina. More than 4,000 jobs in Cabarrus and Rowan counties were lost.
Hudson manned the congressman’s response center helping workers find new jobs. The experience, he said, has made him skeptical of trade deals, but he said the current proposal to grant Obama fast-track authority actually would give Congress greater authority and ensure more transparency during trade negotiations. The proposal would make any final trade agreement open to public comment for 60 days. It also would give Congress the right to rescind fast track if it thinks the law’s labor, environmental and other objectives were not met in the final Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.
“The bottom line for me is I don’t trust President Obama to negotiate trade deals,” Hudson said in an interview. “So what I like about this TPA (trade promotion authority) is it asserts Congress’ authority and gives Congress a much stronger hand and role in trade agreements.”
Not all North Carolina Republican lawmakers support granting Obama special authority. Many are concerned about giving him any additional power.
Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem was the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee who voted against the trade promotion authority. It passed anyway.
Burr spokeswoman Rebecca Glover Watkins said the senator was disappointed that the legislation didn’t address currency manipulation.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of Charlotte is generally supportive of the trade promotion authority but is waiting to see how the amendment process continues, said Daniel Keylin, a Tillis spokesman.
Last month, Tillis joined Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., in a letter to the U.S. trade representative expressing concern about a possible provision that could allow for the future addition of countries such as China and others with histories of currency manipulation.