Analysis: Now Playing “Trading Places” Starring Richie Neal…
UPDATED 7:49PM: To include comment from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
United States Representative Richard Neal received another key nod last week when Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped him to lead House Democrats’ trade working group. On its face, the appointment was not surprising. The committee Neal chairs, Ways & Means, has exclusive jurisdiction over trade. However, this role ensures he will be in the middle of an issue particularly dear to Donald Trump.
Any trade deal, whether the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement or a pact with China, would need to go through Ways & Means at some point. Indeed, Neal and his committee have raised concerns about Trump’s trade policy. In leading Pelosi’s trade working group, Neal will formally steer the new NAFTA into Congress for debate, revision and/or passage. The role also could become crucial in defining the issue of trade for Democrats moving forward.
In a release announcing Pelosi’s appointment, Neal said, “I will continue to scrutinize the details of this [new NAFTA) deal to determine whether it will deliver on creating the American jobs that this Administration has promised, particularly in communities across my district and our country that have borne the heaviest losses.”
Neal’s committee has been churning out several bills, including critical retirement reforms. However, he has principally drawn national attention for trying to summon Trump’s tax returns. Trump has kept his returns in lockdown allegedly due to an interminable audit and stymied efforts to obtain them. Audits do not bar tax filers from releasing their 1040s
Trade could allow Neal to redefine an issue helped undo his party in 2016.
While Ways & Means could certainly produce trade legislation on its own, Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s legislative grim reaper, could easily bury the bill alongside other Democratic legislation. By contrast, Trump needs the House—and Senate—to pass his trade deals like the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), the prosaic, formal name of the new NAFTA.
The loss of current and one-time industrial workers’ votes in the Midwest contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Trump railed against free trade. He assured better deals, pointing to his negotiating skills honed over years of bankruptcies and Gary Busey terminations. While it worked electorally, in office results range from debatable to catastrophic.
Labor, too, while institutionally Democratic-leaning, has deep concerns. How Neal handles these agreements could implicate his party’s relationship with a core constituencies.
Springfield-area branches of the AFL-CIO did not respond to a request for comment. However, in a statement, Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman was pleased with Neal’s appointment.
Neal “has a 97% AFL-CIO voting record and has long advocated for working people,” Tolman said. He added that the labor federation has always had lines of communication with the chairman and expects that will continue as labor seeks to amend the USMCA.
“The text of the new NAFTA needs to be fixed before a vote is held, and we will work with the Chairman and the other members to make sure those fixes happen,” Tolman continued.
Ed Collins, a retired International Representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers argued Neal could rise to the occasion.
When NAFTA passed, Collins was heading the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council and its opposition to the agreement. “John was there immediately,” Collins said, referring to former Rep John Olver. “Richie did vote the right way in the end, but held his powder dry for a while.”
Likewise, Neal withheld his position until quite late in TPP’s process. He announced his opposition when Barack Obama was still president, but months before Trump’s election. Collins understood the delay given Neal’s obligation to consider the pact, then as a senior member of Ways & Means.
The pattern, Collins observed, was for Neal to more quickly side with labor under Republican presidents. He gave Democratic presidents a chance to state their case. Despite votes for trade pacts, Neal has resisted the impulse among many Democrats to blindly support expanding trade with markets that feature laughably cheap labor and abysmal environmental standards.
“My instinct would be, at this particularly point in time, looking for him to move things that would be more favorable to us”—i.e. workers. That, Collins continued, “is probably what’s going to happen.”
It is not in Neal’s nature to torch other officials. Plus, he has been willing to work with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
“I commit to you in this public forum, as I have in private for the past many months, to continue working with you on the NAFTA in good faith, based on facts and on a desire to make responsible policy,” Neal said to Lighthizer Wednesday. Lighthizer appeared before the Ways & Means for the committee’s meeting on its 2019 trade agenda.
But, Neal warned, his committee would not rush USMCA approval. Moreover, he would oppose policies that “undercut the interests of America’s workers and make life more difficult for middle class families.”
He also chastised the administration for its haphazard and even ham-handed use of tariffs. The administration has tried to gain leverage in trade disputes and, more problematically, in matters unrelated to trade.
“As I said over a week ago, commandeering U.S. trade policy to influence border security is an abuse of power and something that I will not support,” Neal said at Wednesday’s hearing.
This would appear to mirror concerns of labor figures like Collins. Though decrying Trump and his policies generally, Collins said the administration came in sounding some reasonable notes about trade. Even Trump’s willingness to use tariffs surgically, such as with Whirlpool early on to counter unfair foreign trade practices, was appropriate.
But, “You don’t use a meat ax approach,” Collins said citing the recent tariff threat to Mexico.
While the China trade battle is ongoing, Trump backed off of using tariffs to punish Mexico for other countries’ production of refugees. Democrats have severe concerns about the USMCA. That could be an opportunity to temper the more scattershot aspects of the administration’s trade policy.
It could lead to some legislation on tariffs, trade relationships and trade adjustment assistance (retraining), too. Even if Ways & Means’ bills meet a senatorial grave, they could become a new model for Democrats if they assume full control of government. Neal implied this opportunity generally the day after his party took over the House last year.
“If the Democrats really want to steal the trade issue away from him,” Collins said, “I think we can count on Congressman Neal’s leadership to come out with a Democratic position that we would feel good about.”