Lobbyists for Trump trade deal launch Michigan ad blitz

By: - May 23, 2019 6:43 pm

Vice President Mike Pence visits a Ford Factory in Southeast Michigan, April 24, 2019 | Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen via Flickr Public Domain

A group pushing for a new North American trade deal proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration has launched a new ad campaign aimed at securing the votes of seven Michigan lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Trade Works for America, a 501(c)(4) lobbying organization founded by Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, earlier this year before he took that role, revealed the new series of digital ads on Thursday urging Michigan voters to call their member of Congress and ask them to support the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA).

The ads are being placed in the districts of U.S. Reps. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.), John Moolenaar (R-Midland), Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), Haley Stevens (D-Rochester), and Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn).

The push comes amid an uncertain moment for the agreement, as Trump on Wednesday reportedly declared his refusal to negotiate with congressional Democrats until they cease their investigations into his campaign and businesses.

Before this partisan acrimony, the White House sent a letter to lawmakers Tuesday night urging their cooperation on the USMCA.

Andy Koenig, a senior advisor for Trade Works for America, stressed that bipartisan consensus would be crucial to the deal’s passage and success — and that Michigan’s delegation would be a key part of forging it.

“It’s no secret that this is going to have to be a bipartisan effort,” Koenig told the Advance earlier this week.

“Michigan is a state where you had districts flipping from Republican to Democratic, so in [Southeast] Michigan you have freshman Democrats who won with a fairly narrow margin, and we think these are some of the folks who are looking for legislation to tout their bipartisanship and help their constituents.”

For their part, Michigan Democrats have been largely cold on the merits of the proposed replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Dingell appeared on Fox News earlier this week calling it a “bad bill” that desperately needed improvement.

Rep. Dan Kildee
Dan Kildee, March 6, 2019 | House Democrats photo

Kildee expressed skepticism this week in the U.S. House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee that its protections would be strong enough to protect Michigan workers.

“We have heard these same promises before,” Kildee said. “We were told that it would be good for Mexican workers; we were told that there would be robust enforcement in the previous agreement … Will this improve that situation substantially? Can I go home to my constituents and tell them that?”

Koenig pushed back on that characterization, saying the USMCA’s provisions would far surpass those in NAFTA that led to an exodus of auto manufacturing to Mexico in the 1990s.

“If you look across the board at labor standards on USMCA, they’re all stronger than NAFTA,” Koenig said. “I don’t want to be cynical. … I hope that Democrats in leadership don’t have to nitpick because they don’t want to give the president a win. From a completely objective standpoint, the USMCA’s labor provisions are much stronger.”

The USMCA would require by 2023 that 40 to 45 percent of auto parts are made by workers who are paid at least $16 an hour, roughly 25 times more than Mexico’s minimum wage. Negotiations over the deal also included an agreement from Mexico to enact a suite of labor reform bills that would strengthen protections for its own workers.

But critics of the agreement say the deal doesn’t go far enough in creating means through which to enforce those protections, echoing similar concerns with NAFTA nearly 30 years ago, like those alluded to by Kildee.

Efforts by Trump administration negotiators to strengthen those provisions faced a major setback this month as Mexican officials said that they’re done negotiating on the subject. Mexico’s recently elected populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a longtime supporter of the agreement, said Thursday he expects it to be ratified.

Vice President Pence did his own part to persuade Michigan to support the agreement last month, meeting with top automakers in metro Detroit to urge them to use their connections in its favor.

“The president and I know we have got to level the playing field for the American autoworker … by prioritizing trade deals that put America first,” Pence said, adding that “time has come for Congress to pass the largest trade deal in American history” by the end of this year.

Paul Mitchell

Automakers at the event unanimously advocated for USMCA’s swift passage, and after this month’s announcement that the Trump administration would end its tariffs on steel and aluminum from Mexico and Canada a raft of industry groups issued approving statements, including Ford Motor Co., who said that action “allows the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to reach its full potential.”

U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) also issued statements praising this week’s move on tariffs, with hardcore Trump ally Mitchell saying he’s “been deeply engaged on this issue, and I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress, the White House, and our trade negotiators to ratify the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and future trade deals that protect American workers and products.”

Trade Works for America’s new campaign is the group’s third urging members of Congress to support the USMCA, having previously targeted representatives in Iowa, Maine, South Carolina, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and California, as well as Slotkin, Stevens, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton).

In April, Stevens led a meeting on Capitol Hill between freshman U.S. Representatives and U.S. Trade Ambassador Richard Lighthizer, urging him to consult with the freshman class as the USMCA is negotiated.

Rep. Haley Stevens and freshmen lawmakers meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Richard Lighthizer | Rep. Stevens photo

At the time, Stevens said in a statement, “This freshman class was not in Congress when the President signed the USMCA… we need a seat at the table to make sure any trade agreement is good for workers, farmers, businesses, and consumers.”

Levin, who said he’s spoken multiple times with Lighthizer and praised him as “the best U.S. Trade Representative in [his] adult lifetime,” said he appreciates his break with the NAFTA-era status quo but is skeptical that the deal as currently constituted is in the best interest of American workers.

“Ambassador Lighthizer is… working for Donald Trump,” Levin told the Advance on Thursday afternoon. “You go find me a place where [Trump] talks with regard to the USMCA about workers’ rights, or about labor protection. He literally never says the words; he doesn’t care about them at all.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin | Ken Coleman

“What NAFTA has done in the political economy of North America is fundamentally about creating a stamp of approval for U.S. companies to ship jobs to Mexico so they can make stuff cheaper. That’s what we have to undo… that would be by far the greatest impact [of the USMCA], and that’s what I’m focusing on for the people in my district.”

In Jacksonville, Florida this week, Pence called for Congress to ratify the USMCA by the end of this summer.

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.