Modernizing NAFTA can benefit American workers
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As a review of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) takes the stage among policymakers, it is incumbent upon us to look carefully at the impact of this specific agreement, along with trade policy as a whole. While there is no doubt the world has changed in major ways since the inception of NAFTA more than two decades ago, it would be irresponsible and shortsighted to scrap the agreement entirely, given its positive impact on America’s economy, businesses and, most importantly, workers. 

A brief glance at the impact of trade on our current and future economy tells the tale. Ninety-six percent of the world’s customers with 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power live outside the United States. The importance of trade with Mexico and Canada is especially important, with exports to both countries accounting for an estimated 14 million American jobs. Canada was the United States’ largest goods export market in 2016, with $320 billion of U.S. exports going to our northern neighbor and the U.S. enjoying a $12.5 billion goods and services trade surplus.

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In my home state of Minnesota, we know the importance of a strong economic and diplomatic relationship with Canada. Moreover, we understand the critical importance of trade, which supports 800,000 Minnesota jobs. Nearly 9,000 companies export goods out of our state, 90 percent of which are small- and medium-sized businesses. Fully, one-fifth of Minnesota manufacturing jobs are dependent on exports. It is not an overstatement to say a retreat from trade could have a disastrous affect on jobs in Minnesota and the nation as a whole.

This does not mean we need to just stick with the status quo though. There’s no question that American workers and small businesses across this nation deserve trade policy that will benefit them in both the near and long term. Certainly a frustration with stagnant wages and slow job growth played a major role in the election results of one year ago. While the economy is improving and heading in a better direction, more needs to done in order to make a real difference in the lives of hardworking men and women across the country.

There are some that want to disband NAFTA altogether, but these critics of NAFTA must recognize that trade, when done fairly, is a strong tool for improving our economy. I’m a staunch advocate for a robust trade agenda, because it creates good jobs and larger paychecks, helps improve the lives of all Americans and, ultimately, can play a major role in getting our economy moving again. Rather than reflexively withdrawing from trade agreements, we should focus on modernizing them. The need for this modernization is one of the reasons why I co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Digital Trade Caucus earlier this year with Rep. Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Hillicon Valley: Deal reached on ZTE, but lawmakers look to block it | New encryption bill | Dems push Ryan for net neutrality vote | Google vows it won't use AI for weapons Lawmakers renew push to preempt state encryption laws MORE (D-Wash.).

Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, the internet has helped facilitate the new frontier of digital trade, and part of making sure that the U.S remains on the forefront of the 21st-century economy is through modernization of our trade agreements. This new caucus brings together lawmakers from across the country to make sure our small businesses and large companies that rely on digital trade aren’t at a disadvantage due to restrictive policies. I’m hopeful that our NAFTA renegotiations will include a chapter on digital trade as part of this modernization.

A lack of strict enforcement for the rules of our trade agreements is also putting our economy and workers at a disadvantage. As we look at renegotiating NAFTA, in order to reap the intended benefits of any trade deal, we must focus on enforcement. That’s why we passed strong trade enforcement provisions in the Trade Enforcement and Trade Facilitation Act in February 2016. We need to do a better job of enforcing our trade agreements so American workers that follow the rules compete on a level playing field.

Ultimately, we must understand that trade has an important role in the future growth of the economy. In the weeks and months ahead, we will have an opportunity to ensure that a modernized NAFTA benefits American workers and strengthens our ties to longtime partners like Canada. The best way for us to ensure and advance American interests, as well the global economy, is to be a lead player in these negotiations. We cannot and should not disengage on this critical issue.

Paulsen represents Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District and is a member of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee.