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The Biggest Question Mark for the New Congress

The single most important vote of the 116th Congress will be on trade: specifically, the NAFTA replacement. We have absolutely no idea where the new legislators stand on it.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The 116th Congress won’t begin for another month or so, but we already know the session’s most important vote. It won’t be about health care or the environment or the technology industry, although it will affect all of those things. It will set the course of U.S. policy, foreign and domestic, for several years, if not decades. And it got very little attention during the midterm campaign.

I’m talking about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the renegotiation of NAFTA that was signed October 1. All participating countries in the deal must ratify it through their legislatures, and with the Democratic takeover of the House, that means the party that rode to victory resisting Donald Trump must decide whether to approve his reimagining of global trade. Since USMCA will serve as a template for future trade deals, the decision will define the United States’ role in the world, at least from an economic perspective, for a long time to come.

The aggressive agendas on health care and voting rights House Democrats are readying have little chance of being approved by the Republican Senate or President Trump. But the USMCA will become law if House Democrats allow it, giving them leverage over something Trump covets. Some Senate Republicans, seeking to avoid letting Democrats have a say in the matter, are urging Trump to rush through the agreement in the lame duck session, but that appears unlikely.

The divide over the USMCA, however, is not necessarily left versus right, as both sides see good and bad in the deal. For example, corporate lobby shops like the Business Roundtable and their Republican allies are disturbed by the agreement’s virtual elimination of investor-state dispute settlement procedures, which allow foreign companies to sue national governments for interfering with “expected future profits.” Then again, business groups secured expanded copyright terms and legal immunity for Internet companies that host pirated content.

Labor groups are heartened—carmakers less so—by a minimum wage standard for continent-wide auto production, as well as the bolstering of union protections in Mexico. But they are also concerned that the labor chapter lacks sufficient enforcement mechanisms, without which the bold promises amount to mere words on paper.

Leftists have warned that they would oppose the USMCA over labor enforcement, as well as weak environmental standards: The words “climate change” do not appear in the agreement. As Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach put it in a post-midterms statement, “After this election, only trade deals that can earn Democratic support will get through Congress.”

But a potential leftist roadblock to the deal depends on one critical swing group: the freshman Democrats who will enter Congress in January. And what these new legislators think about trade policy is anyone’s guess. Trade was not an overriding national message in the midterms, taking a back seat to health care, immigration and gun safety.

I looked at the websites of the 40 Democrats who flipped seats in the House, along with eight other incoming members who replaced Democrats in seats considered to be strongly progressive. Not one of these 48 mention trade on their homepages, and just two—Jeff Van Drew and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey—cite trade on “about the candidate” pages. Even there, Van Drew nods only to nonspecific trade “reforms”; Malinowski highlights the need to “protect workers in our trade agreements.”

Eleven of the forty-eight incoming members mention trade on issues pages, but only two list trade specifically as an issue—Jared Golden of Maine and Kim Schrier of Washington state. There are only four references to NAFTA. Not one freshman noted the USMCA renegotiation, even though the text was released well before Election Day. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive darling, only uses the word “trade” on her website in one reference to “trade school.”

The Democrats that manage to mention trade generally vow to protect workers from unfair deals that put livelihoods at risk. Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American replacing Keith Ellison in a Minneapolis district, endorses enforceable labor and environmental standards and an end to investor-state dispute settlement on her website. Schrier’s trade mini-site is detailed, putting U.S. workers and the environment first; Golden points out that “the United States must stop using trade agreements as investment deals for the world’s wealthiest corporations.”

But the vast majority of incoming freshmen either neglect the trade issue entirely, or use the most noncommittal possible language. Antonio Delgado, representing upstate New York, is a good example: his site says he “opposes any trade agreements not beneficial to our region or to American workers,” without any detail for what that would actually mean.

Why was trade such a blind spot in the campaign? As noted, in trying to draw contrasts and move voters, health care and other issues took precedence over technical trade matters. But the composition of the freshman class could also be playing a role. Democrats took seats in the suburbs, rather than the industrial towns beleaguered by NAFTA, or rural areas with agricultural trade concerns. Despite the importance of trade policy to every worker, every consumer, and every taxpayer, those consequences often lie in the background, and may not weigh on the minds of suburban commuters and office-park workers. And while these voters may care greatly about climate change, they may not appreciate the way environmental policy is often enacted through trade policy.

But this creates a real unknown factor to the USMCA debate. How exactly will the freshman class approach it? They may join the faction seeking enforceable labor and environmental standards. Or they may see this as an inoculating vote, a way to show non-partisan points of agreement with Trump in swing districts. They may even use their vote to please business groups, and subsequently as a chance to earn future campaign donations. There’s no real way to predict, given the complete lack of discussion of trade in the campaign.

It’s rare to have this kind of uncertainty in an age of polarized politics. It speaks to a deficiency in our elections that dozens of incoming Congressmembers can get all the way to Washington without disclosing their positions on what will be the most critical vote of their young careers. One hundred and two Democrats supplied the margin when NAFTA passed the House in 1993; far fewer House freshmen could provide the needed votes today. Constituents ought to ask these incoming members where they stand.