The Trans-Pacific Partnership could prove to be key step in right direction

 As chairman of the House Trade Working Group, I am often wrongly portrayed as anti-trade, though nothing could be further from the truth.  International commerce is a necessary and beneficial component of America’s economy.  More importantly trade always has been and will be a pillar of American ideals and commerce, and I strongly support it.  What I don’t support is blindly pursuing the same trade policy that we’ve pursued for decades without analyzing how it has affected American jobs and without revising it to ensure it protects American companies and workers alike. 

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 I come from Millinocket, Maine, where the community prospered and thrived in tandem with the Great Northern Paper Company mill.  I worked there for nearly 30 years, following in the footsteps of my father and my grandfather.  And although I am still on the timesheet for Great Northern, in 2003, days after I was sworn in as a new member of Congress, the paper mill in my hometown closed its doors. Each weekend I return home and am reminded that there are winners and losers of free trade.  I think it is economically misguided to leave entire sectors of our economy and large regions of our country to languish as a result of our trade policies.  This is one of the reasons I formed the House Trade Working Group in 2007 and made fair trade policy a top priority.

 U.S. manufacturing, including paper production, has declined noticeably since the implementation of NAFTA and the subsequent rash of free trade agreements that have been signed. I do not buy the argument that the U.S. should shift to an overwhelmingly service-based economy. This argument suggests that the very profession that sustained my family, my hometown, and much of the state of Maine will be a foregone casualty of trade agreements, with the assurances that new professions in technology or consulting will take its place. This simply isn’t true, and entire regions of my state and others across the country have suffered from this misguided philosophy.

 There should still be national pride in working in a paper mill or an automobile assembly plant. Just as we coalesce around preserving the livelihood of the American farmer, so should we unite behind the prosperity of the blue-collar worker who makes a living, as I did, at the local mill or factory.  Support for these Americans and these jobs is more important now — in the wake of the financial downturn — than ever.

 Recently there has been a renewed push for immediate congressional consideration of the pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama  and South Korea. But these are far from the “new paradigm of trade” President Barack Obama strives for. I also believe we should not bring these to the House floor for a vote until we have analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of our trade policy and adjusted these agreements accordingly. The recession revealed all too plainly how vulnerable our economy can be. Rushing to sign free trade agreements without taking the time to ensure that they will actually strengthen our economy as a whole would be reckless at a time when prudence and caution are needed.  We must consider the long-term economic effects of these pacts, not just the short-term boost to exports and imports. 

 It’s time for Congress to have the important, honest conversation about how we can make our trade policy better.  Instead of harping over who is for or against free trade, let’s move beyond those entrenched arguments of convenience. 

 We are all for global exchange and increased opportunities; it’s simply the American way.  It’s also the American way to welcome hearty debate about a topic that affects each and every one of us.  A “new paradigm on trade” is exactly what American workers of all types need. It’s also the key to our long-term economic development.  I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that the U.S. trade policy negotiated in Melbourne this year and cities around the world in the future is one that benefits American workers in paper mills, consultant firms and auto factories equally. 
 
Michaud is the chairman of the House Trade Working Group.