What Constitutional Crisis? Democrats Still Following 'Path To Yes' On Trade Deal

Democrats don't think the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal should get tangled up in impeachment.

WASHINGTON ― Democrats are locked in a constitutional death match with the Trump administration as the president shows no sign of respecting lawmakers’ oversight powers.

And yet you would not know that by the current state of negotiations over a new trade deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that Democrats are on a “path to yes” with the Trump administration on legislation to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

A new deal would give Democrats long-sought victories, but it would also hand President Donald Trump a massive win without any cooperation from the administration on the long list of ignored subpoenas or anything else, for that matter.

Democrats could demand cooperation from the administration on their Ukraine investigation if they want to play hardball. Or they could just require the president to disclose his income tax returns to assure the public he has nothing to gain from a new trade deal.

Instead, the trade negotiations have proceeded in a weird political vacuum, walled off from the chaos of the Trump presidency and the impeachment process. And that’s partly because Democrats want to seem agreeable.

“The trade bill is a demonstration of whether or not we can govern, and that’s how we’re going to handle it,” Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and a trade working group, told HuffPost this week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives Thursday for a news conference on Capitol Hill. She says House Democrats are on a "path to yes" on a trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives Thursday for a news conference on Capitol Hill. She says House Democrats are on a "path to yes" on a trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
Erin Scott / Reuters

None of this means the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal is certain to win approval. Neal’s working group is pushing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to change key parts of a proposed agreement that the Trump administration struck with Canada and Mexico last year. There are several sticking points, including intellectual property protections for new biologic drugs, enforcement of environmental protections and enforcement of better labor standards.

Tighter labor standards in Mexico would benefit not only Mexican workers but also American workers, since U.S. companies would be less able to find exploitatively low wages in Mexico.

“If Democrats are able to fix the deal Trump signed last year, it could actually make a difference for people,” said Lori Wallach, an influential trade expert with the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. “As much as Democrats despise Trump, their zeal to fix NAFTA is extremely compelling given the deal has destroyed a million American jobs so far and corporations are outsourcing more to Mexico weekly.”

Nearly a million American workers have lost their jobs to Canada or Mexico since NAFTA took effect in 1994, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of Labor Department data. The department certifies when a mass layoff is caused by trade so that workers can apply for special unemployment benefits called trade adjustment assistance. In 2017, for instance, bearings manufacturer Rexnord shuttered its plant in Indiana and had the workers there train the people who would be doing their jobs in Mexico.

Neal’s Ways and Means Committee is battling the White House over the committee’s formal request for the president’s tax returns, which the administration rebuffed, pushing the committee to sue in federal court.

If the court agrees with the president’s lawyers that the administration doesn’t have to honor congressional demands, it would “drastically impair Congress’s ability to inform itself and fulfill its constitutional functions,” House lawyers argued in a recent court filing.

But Neal and many other Democrats said they didn’t think lawmakers ought to make their participation in trade negotiations contingent on the administration’s cooperation with its investigations.

Trade working group member Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said there’s been no horse trading, and even if lawmakers wanted to try that, Trump is too unreliable for it to work anyway.

“You can’t trade with this guy,” Blumenauer said.

One member of the trade working group rejected the idea that negotiating on trade is about showing that Democrats can govern, as Neal suggested.

“If you want to deal with governance, talk to Mitch McConnell,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), pointing to House-passed bills on gun control, campaign finance and workplace equality that the Senate majority leader has not brought up for a vote. “That’s governance. We have governed. We are governing.”

“The trade bill is a demonstration of whether or not we can govern, and that’s how we’re going to handle it.”

- Richard Neal

Though there is certainly a desire to govern and get the trade deal done, some Democrats are still concerned about the substance of the deal, as well as giving up a point of leverage. “That makes no sense to me at all given who he is and how transactional he is about everything,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost.

In response to questions about tying the trade deal to something like Trump’s tax returns, Huffman said he thought that would be a “fun demand” but that a more appropriate linkage would be making sure Trump doesn’t shut down the government or reallocate funds to things like his border wall.

“He’s misbehaving on so many fronts,” Huffman said, “I feel like we have to kind of marshal whatever leverage we have at this point.”

But several Democrats said it’s too early to speculate about what might happen when the negotiations are finished.

“It always is like a whole set of things that come together at a different time and you have no idea what those things are in the moment,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I just think we’re trying to get the best deal we can and then we’ll see where we are in the process of passing a number of different things.”

Or Democrats could fail to get what they want in the negotiations, rank-and-file Democrats could wind up abandoning the deal and it could pass the House with a lot of help from Republicans. Or maybe there could be no deal at all.

But there are plenty of Democrats who have a real interest in delivering a landmark piece of legislation. Many newly elected Democrats who represent vulnerable districts would love to show their voters that they can work with Trump even as the House proceeds with impeachment.

The desire to deliver a bipartisan win is becoming even more pressing as other priorities ― infrastructure, a prescription drug bill, even routine appropriations ― look more doubtful by the day.

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