Future U.S. trade agreements must avoid — not repeat — the mistake Congress made by granting the president “fast track” authority to ram the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through the House 20 years ago, with no debate or amendments allowed. We have been dealing with the consequences of that decision ever since.

The NAFTA agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico has cost American jobs, widened the income gap between rich and poor, and undermined U.S. health, safety and environmental regulations to the sole benefit of multinational corporations whose only interest is to flood our markets with cheap goods produced by underpaid foreign workers.

Yet former Congressmen Tim Penny and Mark Kennedy (“Trade Talks — NAFTA as a Guide,” Feb. 19) are advocating fast-track authority for a new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with Canada, Mexico, Japan and eight other East Asian nations. And they are touting NAFTA as the poster child for this and future trade pacts.

There are two really big things wrong with this picture.

First, the TPP is being negotiated in secret, and secrecy is no friend to good public policy. We only know what we know about TPP from leaks out of closed-door sessions no member of Congress or the news media are permitted to attend.

Who is participating along with the U.S. negotiating team? Some 600 official corporate “trade advisers” — including big multinationals like DuPont, Caterpillar and Halliburton. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine the winners when TPP’s closed doors finally open.

Second, if NAFTA is truly the model for these secret TPP negotiations, the results can only be another string of costly broken promises and destructive, job-killing policies.

Consider just these three huge, dashed NAFTA promises — evidenced with exhaustive research by Public Citizen, the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other independent researchers.

1) NAFTA promised to create 200,000 good-paying American jobs every year. In fact, a sixfold increase in the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico ($177 billion, adjusted for inflation) spurred the loss of more than 1 million U.S. jobs and forced some 845,000 American workers to apply for special Trade Adjustment Assistance as factories were relocated to take advantage of low-cost Mexican labor and lax health, safety and environmental regulations. Two out of three displaced U.S. workers have since been rehired at wages averaging 25 percent lower than before, along with lost pension and health benefits. Many others have taken minimum-wage jobs in the food and hospitality industries — further widening the gap between rich and poor and helping to decimate America’s middle class.

Here in Minnesota, more than 13,000 workers have been displaced due to burgeoning trade deficits with Mexico and Canada since NAFTA was enacted in 1994.

2) NAFTA promised a more prosperous future for U.S. farmers and ranchers, as well as small farms in Mexico. In fact, U.S. imports of cheaper beef from Canada and Mexico are up 130 percent, undermining the market here at home. Here in Minnesota, sugar beet farmers are being particularly hard hit by cheap sugar from Mexico. Meanwhile, U.S. exports of inexpensive corn to Mexico have cost more than 1 million Mexican campesino farmers and some 1.4 million farm workers their livelihoods. Today, more than 50 percent of Mexicans live below the poverty line, helping to spur new waves of illegal immigration to the United States.

3) NAFTA promised to protect U.S. health, environmental and worker protection standards. In fact, NAFTA’s complex dispute resolution system has allowed Canada and Mexico to repeatedly challenge U.S. regulations protecting our water and air, the integrity of our meat labeling and food, our patents, and our ability to ban the use of toxic substances in agriculture and manufacturing. Billions of dollars in foreign claims against U.S. interests are now pending.

For these and many other reasons, we recently joined 176 of our House colleagues in a bipartisan letter to the White House expressing opposition to fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

We must never repeat the NAFTA mistake of allowing the desire for a speedy resolution, or the interests of multinational corporations, to supersede careful oversight and thorough debate by the elected representatives of the American people.


Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison represent Minnesota’s Eighth and Fifth Districts, respectively, in the U.S. House.