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Texas lawmakers hope rhetoric doesn't swamp beneficial trade deals

Trade has become an emotional hot-button issue this presidential election year, and some Texas lawmakers are worried about what that means for the future of the state's trade climate.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, operating a crane at the Port of Houston Authority on November 1, 2016. The port is ranked first in the country for imports and exports, and second for overall tonnage.

LA PORTE, Texas — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has been in politics long enough to know that hard line, campaign trail talk doesn’t always survive after elections. And he’s hoping — at least for Texas’ sake — that the tradition holds true this year on at least one issue: international trade.

If not, Cornyn could have his work cut out for him trying to keep intact current trade policies, and the benefits they bring to Texas. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made trade issues hallmarks of their campaigns, each assailing trade deals to different degrees.

“While I think President Obama has been right on trade generally speaking, he hasn’t been a particularly effective spokesman for the benefits,” Cornyn said.  “And I think a lot of that has to do with the internal divisions within his party on trade.”

That internal strife has seen Democratic nominee Clinton shift on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade pact Obama and Cornyn support, first calling it the “gold standard” but opposing it in the later months of her candidacy. The switch came after Clinton’s former rival and current supporter, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT. railed against more free trade policies he said will not prop up the middle class.

Meanwhile, GOP nominee Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement the country’s “worst trade deal” and has vowed to end or renegotiate the pact because he believes the agreement ships jobs overseas. Though his comments about Mexico often center on his infamous “rapists" and "murderers” comments and illegal immigration, he’s also said repeatedly stated that the country “beats” the United States on trade.

Cornyn said he hopes tempers will subside after Tuesday, and that whomever claims the White House will adopt a more pragmatic tone.

“I hope that after the election — that after emotions cool — we’ll take a more reasoned approach,” he said. “It’s like so many things [where] we need somebody who’s explaining the benefits of trade for everybody. And in the absence of that you get the more shrill, less responsible voices seem to fill the vacuum.”

Cornyn said the country’s trading relationship with Mexico sustains about 6 million jobs in the United States. Texas is home to the country’s busiest inland ports, Laredo and El Paso. From January to August of this year, the two customs districts have seen $179.5 billion and $63.56 billion in two-way trade with Mexico, respectively. Houston is the country’s fifth busiest trade partner with Mexico, at about $10 billion during the same time frame, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based economics think-tank that uses U.S. Census data to track trade patterns. According to Port of Houston Authority statistics, the hub supports more than 1.7 million jobs in Texas.

“We see here in Texas the benefits of Texas being the number one exporting state in the country,” Cornyn told the Tribune during a tour of the Port of Houston last week.  “And while you have people — it ranges from Ross Perot Sr. to Donald Trump — talking about NAFTA being a bad thing, I think you’d be hard pressed in Texas to find anybody who believes that.”

The North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994, gradually eliminated most tariffs on several goods traded between Canada, Mexico and the United States. The main focus of the pact was freeing up of most agriculture, textile and automobile manufacturing, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.  

The current debate over the TPP centers on that initiative's goal of becoming what its supporters call a 21st century trade agreement that expands the tariff-eliminating measure beyond North America and includes provisions related to "trade facilitation; sanitary and phytosanitary measures; technical barriers to trade; trade remedies; investment; services; electronic commerce; government procurement; intellectual property," according to the CFR. 

Cornyn conceded the TPP likely won't move forward during Obama’s last few months in office.

“I talked to Secretary [Penny] Pritzker and the Department of Commerce the other day, and she was asking me if there was any hope to pursue the Trans Pacific Partnership in the lame duck session. I am not optimistic,” he said.

He added that because of the 2015 Trade Promotion Authority, legislation requiring congressional approval for changes to tariff or non-tariff trade agreements, the next president would likely take a more thoughtful approach to trade policies.

“My hope is that given the fact the Trade Promotion Authority is a six-year authorization, that whoever the next president is that they’ll take a more practical, more pragmatic view,” he said.

Cornyn acknowledged the United States will have to make sacrifices to remain competitive. He cited the decline of the textile industries in the Carolinas once those jobs were outsourced overseas.

“What we can do is make sure people get access to the job training they need to replace those skills with good high paying jobs that exist here for which they can’t get an adequate trained workforce,” he said. “But it’s going to take a willingness to target the people who are hurt because there jobs move off shore someplace else.”

Border-area lawmakers have a more nuanced approach to supporting trade deals. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, has yet to officially throw his support behind the TPP. Asked during a Tribune event in Austin last week why he’s hesitated, he cited the North American Free Trade Agreement’s double-edged sword effect on his district.

He said that in the immediate NAFTA aftermath, the El Paso border region directly felt saw the losses of thousands of jobs after the low-skilled, low-wage work performed north of the Rio Grande moved south.

“That informs what many of us in this community feel about TPP,” he said.

But he also said some sectors of the region’s economy have undoubtedly benefited from the policy.

“In the decades since the passage of NAFTA, EL Paso has transitioned from a low-wage, low-skilled, labor intensive community to a trade community,” he said. “That’s now connected to one out of every four jobs in the community that I represent. NAFTA is not a black or white [though] it is for many people in the community who lost their job because of NAFTA .”

O’Rourke said a major hurdle for him in supporting TPP is that there is no incentive for Mexico to reform its labor laws and root out the potential for abuse of its workforce.

“There is no consistency plan for Mexico,” he said. “Mexico does not have independent labor unions, they have sham syndicates that purport to be independent labor unions, but they are not. These are organizations that make deals with the management of the factories before the first worker is hired. The workers have no voice and no say.”

Read more Tribune stories on these issues

  • Caught between the anti-globalist tirades of their presidential standard bearer and their state's close trade ties with Mexico, Texas congressional Republicans are straddling a tricky political line when it comes to talk of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
  • For years, Laredo banker Dennis Nixon has championed trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling it vital to the economy in a state that shares a massive border with Mexico. And now Nixon is helping raise money for a presidential candidate whose campaign has been staked on dismantling such deals.

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