U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts called for a robust public education campaign Tuesday to deflate claims by President Donald Trump and others the North American Free Trade Agreement was a disaster for the United States and that concessions from Canada and Mexico must be extracted through renegotiation.
Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate’s agriculture committee, said in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., that trade inspired by NAFTA had been a powerful economic force for Kansas agriculture. He said export markets in Mexico and Canada were essential to stave off further erosion in the price producers received in crop and livestock markets.
“We are fighting a pervasive view that our economy has not benefited from NAFTA. That is simply not right,” the senator said. “We are coming to a crossroads, and the decisions made on international trade will determine the future economic success of our country.”
Roberts said, without mentioning Trump by name, the president’s claim NAFTA had been a “total disaster” and represented the “worst trade deal” in U.S. history must be countered by agriculture and business leaders with a better sense of the economic landscape.
He said U.S. agricultural exports since implementation of NAFTA in January 1994 had risen 289 percent to Mexico and 265 percent to Canada.
Mexico barely registered as a market prior to NAFTA, he said, but it has grown to be the top destination for Kansas wheat.
“We must educate,” Roberts said. “Our message must be clear and consistent in every way. We must commit to challenge this view, set the record straight, and explain what is at stake. These issues affect real jobs and real lives.”
Roberts said he had raised with Trump on three occasions the need to keep exporting things made and grown in the United States. As talks among the United States, Mexico and Canada created friction, Trump has threatened to scuttle NAFTA entirely.
Business executives in the U.S. Chamber should be delivering personal stories about potential benefits of modernizing NAFTA and high risks of dismantling the 23-year-old agreement, Roberts said.
“Everybody talks about numbers in Washington. It seems to me we can make a better point if we make it personal. The stakes are very clear. We’re in a bad patch. We have to sell our product,” Roberts said.