If The NAFTA Vote Were Held Today, How Would It Fare?

A year before his Democratic Party would lose control of the House for the first time in generations, President Clinton pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. The vote in the House was 234-200, and most of the votes in favor came from Republicans. Most of the lawmakers who approved that deal are gone, but 80 remain. Twenty years later, would they vote the same way?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. It's been 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed into law a trade pact that wiped out many of the commercial barriers between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement was controversial. Although Congress in the end approved NAFTA, it divided lawmakers, and on both sides of the aisle.

Two decades later, many who voted for or against the deal are still in office. As NPR's David Welna reports, some of them have changed their minds about the deal, and some have not.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On the day he inked the NAFTA pact at a boisterous White House ceremony, former president Clinton acknowledged the fierce debate that preceded that signing; he called that polemic a symbolic struggle for the spirit of our country.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL SIGNING)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Now we must recognize that the only way for a wealthy nation to grow richer is to export, to simply find new customers for the products and services it makes. That, my fellow Americans, is the decision that Congress made when they voted to ratify NAFTA.

WELNA: Still, nearly half the members of Congress voted against NAFTA. Many of them agreed with Ross Perot, the third party presidential contender who lost to Clinton a year earlier. In a debate before that 1992 race, Perot made a memorable prediction about NAFTA.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROSS PEROT: There will be a giant sucking sound going south.

WELNA: Perot's prognostication colored the House NAFTA debate. This was New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK PALLONE: Simply put, we will be exporting factories and capital to Mexico, and importing the fruits of this cheap labor.

WELNA: In that same debate, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur said the uneven nature of the trade partnership would cost the U.S. millions of jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

REPRESENTATIVE MARCY KAPTUR: Never has the United States negotiated a free-trade agreement with a nation whose standard of living and political system are as different from our own as Mexico's.

WELNA: Twenty years later, Kaptur still thinks Congress lost its way voting for NAFTA.

KAPTUR: It's a great continental tragedy, and the few that benefited, you know, they're doing just fine, but the problem is, they don't see the rust, and this Congress, too often represents only the top 1 percent, not the other 99 that bear the results of what is voted on here.

WELNA: But for other House Democrats, NAFTA was key to competing in an increasingly globalized economy. At the time, Dick Durbin was a congressman from Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: We have heard a lot of economists quoted on the floor today. I'd like to quote another counselor. His name was Bob Dylan, and he wrote 30 years ago: You'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone.

WELNA: Durbin has since become the Senate's number two Democrat. On balance, he says, NAFTA's been positive, both for Mexico and the U.S., even though a lot of his constituents don't see it that way.

DURBIN: People have a right to be suspicious of trade deals, and when the economy is weak, they naturally believe that's part of the problem. Let's be more specific, though, let's take a look at what's happening here. And what I see happening, for example, with a major exporter from Illinois like Caterpillar Tractor. If they didn't have these foreign markets, I wouldn't have a lot of Illinoisans working in Peoria and Pekin and Decatur.

WELNA: Indeed, some who opposed NAFTA in the House have since changed their minds about trade deals. One of them is Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia.

REPRESENTATIVE JACK KINGSTON: We are living in an international society, so I think the subsequent trade agreements are easier to say yes to because the - you can't get the cream out of the coffee at this point, it's all mixed together.

WELNA: If you were to cast that vote again today, knowing what you know now for or against NAFTA, how do you think you'd vote?

KINGSTON: I am more inclined, I did vote for CAFTA, we needed free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

WELNA: CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and the others all got hammered out during the Republican administration of George W. Bush. While he was still in the White House, Congress allowed the fast-track authority under which those deals were negotiated to lapse. That meant lawmakers were no longer limited to voting only yes or no on trade pacts - they could amend them as well.

There's now a push underway by pro-trade lawmakers and the Obama White House to renew fast-track. But nearly a third of House members have signed letters opposing it. Among them are some who voted for NAFTA.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCDERMOTT: I learned a lot from that experience.

WELNA: Jim McDermott is a Democrat from Washington state. He represents Seattle, which exports everything from jetliners to software. Still, McDermott's become skeptical of trade deals. He's been to Mexico, where he saw little evidence of benefits from the labor and environmental provisions in NAFTA that initially won him over.

MCDERMOTT: I did as much homework as I could and learned that not everything that glitters is gold. So - and my attitude toward trade agreements ever since has always been, I'm not jumping to anything.

WELNA: Not even the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade pact, which could directly benefit McDermott's West Coast district. It's not clear how soon Congress may be asked to ratify the TPP, which includes major Asian trading partners such as Japan, but excludes China. But even pro-trade Senate Democrat Durbin is reluctant to endorse it.

DURBIN: It's a big deal, and before I risk jobs in a recovering economy, I'm going to take a much closer look at the provisions.

WELNA: Which is precisely what some who voted for NAFTA wished they'd done 20 years ago.

David Welna, NPR news, the Capitol.

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