February 21, 2020
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Why Trump’s revised NAFTA has been met with skepticism in Maine

Michael Shepherd | BDN
Michael Shepherd | BDN
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, speaks with millworker Mike Brenner while campaigning outside the ND Paper mill in Rumford in 2018.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The trade deal that will likely be one of President Donald Trump’s most significant legislative accomplishments going into the 2020 election has so far been met with considerably less enthusiasm in free trade-wary Maine.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, has created strange political bedfellows, racking up the rare support of both the Republican president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. It was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading pro-business lobbying group and the AFL-CIO, the country’s most prominent labor union coalition.

The agreement, billed as a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed the House of Representatives in December by a vote of 385-41. Maine’s two Democratic representatives, Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District — both of whom have been politically allied with unions — bucked party leaders to oppose the agreement, saying it would not benefit Maine workers.

Cynthia Phinney, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, characterized the trade deal as an improvement on what the Trump administration had first proposed to replace NAFTA in 2017, but said the agreement still fell short on some of the labor group’s goals.

“We don’t feel that [the revised agreement] is a template for the future,” Phinney said. “We are really proud of the improvements that we made because we were going to end up with an agreement that was worse than the original.”

Phinney cited a lack of environmental protections as one area that the trade agreement failed to deal with, a concern that has been raised by activist groups. She added that she sees the deal as not sufficient to repair the problems created by previous agreements, saying nothing in it is “designed to bring back the jobs we lost.”

Skepticism about free trade agreements is not new in Maine politics, though separating fact from feeling on the effects of NAFTA here is difficult. Automation also hurt manufacturing jobs, and NAFTA was not the only free-trade agreement that the U.S. signed onto in the 1990s.

It passed in 1993 with the support of only one member of Maine’s congressional delegation — then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Democrat. It was opposed by Sen. William Cohen and Rep. Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, and Democratic Rep. Tom Andrews.

“When other trade deals came up, our members have typically voted against those trade deals, and I think in large part because so many people in the state of Maine are opposed to them,” said Sharon Treat, a former Democratic state legislator from Hallowell who serves on a commission established in the early 2000s to study the effects of trade in Maine.

One advocacy group suggested that, of the 32,000 manufacturing jobs the state has lost since 1994, about 24,000 were linked to trade. Other groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have argued approximately that many jobs are supported by increased trade under NAFTA.

An analysis from the U.S. Trade Commission suggests that the new agreement would create about 176,000 jobs in the United States over six years, though only about 50,000 of the jobs would be in the manufacturing sector.

Trump capitalized on concerns about trade in the lead-up to the 2016 election, with the eventual president repeating the frequent refrain that other countries had “taken our jobs.” The message may have resonated in parts of the state that had faced significant job losses in the manufacturing sector and helped the president pick up an electoral vote in the 2nd District.

Heading into the 2020 election, USMCA is likely to be considered one of Trump’s most significant legislative accomplishments — if it passes the Republican-held Senate as expected. It is likely to come up for a vote in the upper chamber after Trump’s January impeachment trial.

Neither of Maine’s senators has stated publicly whether they will vote for the bill. Both indicated through spokespeople on Friday that they were continuing to review the text of the agreement before making a decision. Collins welcomed the compromise deal in December.

Maine Republicans have largely supported the agreement, pressuring Golden, who represents a swing district, on the issue ahead of the 2020 election. Phinney said she expects the Senate to agree to the deal.

“I feel like they’re probably going to vote for it, so we’ll be glad we did all the work,” she said. “And when there’s an opportunity to make this better, we will.”

 


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