Trade has become a punching bag for many politicians this election cycle. With many working class manufacturing regions around the country feeling left behind by the mysterious “globalization” that seems to be making other people so much money, our country’s ever-increasing propensity to buy things made elsewhere is an easy mark for scoring political points. While trade in general offers a good target for candidates to lob bombs at, the Trans Pacific Partnership specifically is even better. The TPP will offer members of Congress a chance to vote yes or no on the biggest trade deal in history.
The deal will likely not be voted on for a while (more on that later), but it is still worth looking at how Maine’s members are positioning themselves. This post covers Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin, and I will discuss Susan Collins and Angus King next. I also intend to do a general explainer on the TPP and how it may affect Maine. It may seem backwards to offer that last, but discussing the lawmakers’ positions first can make it a bit more clear how the details of the deal fit into the political narratives we all hear.
Chellie Pingree has made her position on free trade agreements and the TPP quite clear. In a recent piece in the Portland Press Herald, she said:
“After 20 years under NAFTA, you’d be hard pressed to find many in Maine who think our state benefited from that agreement. Since it was signed, the U.S. trade deficit has increased and Maine has lost many good-paying jobs – especially in manufacturing – both to foreign competition and to corporations sending jobs to lower-paying countries. This trend would continue under TPP.”
In the article she lays out all of the major points that define the Democratic playbook for opposing the TPP: that it was negotiated in secret, that the fast track authority is unfair, that it will take away manufacturing jobs and lower environmental and labor standards, and that companies will be able to sue countries in new ways. She says that she is not opposed to trade, but the TPP will be unfair, just as NAFTA was, in her opinion. There’s not much ambiguity there.
Pingree has historically been consistent on the issue. In addition to voting against the Trade Promotion Authority bill last year that reinstated the fast track process for trade agreements, she has voted against trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia during her tenure. It would be very safe to bet on her voting against the TPP whenever it reaches Congress. This is not a tough decision for Pingree; it’s what her party wants, and it’s likely what her constituents want.
Bruce Poliquin is in a more difficult position. He is a Republican, and the Republican Party generally supports the TPP and free trade agreements. He is also a brand new member of Congress, and it can be hard to get anything done as a new member if you stray too far from your party, particularly in the crowded House of Representatives. However, he is representing Maine’s 2nd District, which is understandably skeptical, if not outright hostile, to free trade given how the transfer of manufacturing jobs overseas has hurt the region. Despite the TPP not including China—the primary culprit of this job loss—it is easy to imagine that voters will vehemently oppose the deal.
The TPP will almost definitely not be put to a vote before November’s election. Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership made the decision to delay the vote to help Republicans precisely like Poliquin: those who will be in tight elections this fall in regions where manufacturing is hurting. The Republican Party wants their members to be able to vote for the deal but know that doing so could spell trouble for many on the campaign trail. This is especially true given the prevailing national sentiment on trade tied to the presidential campaign—it’s being stomped on right now. Delaying the vote until a lame duck session or the next Congress can avoid this problem. If they delay it until the next Congress, Republicans will have the added bonus of denying Obama a victory on his signature trade deal while he is still in office, despite it being perhaps the only thing they agree on.
So what is Poliquin to do? Fortunately for him, he won’t have to vote on the deal before the election, but people are still going to ask him how he will vote after the election. People like Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. In response Poliquin does what anybody in his position would do: he hedges. Last April, when he visited the New Balance plant in Norridgewock that may close as a result of the deal, he said he would study the issue; after the full TPP text was released in November, he said he was studying the issue; in response to Janet Mills’ question, he said he’s still studying the issue.
It will be tough for Poliquin to withhold a clear position for too much longer, but for the time being, 2nd District voters are in the position of guessing how he will vote. Poliquin can study the TPP as long as he wants, but chances are its potential effects will be as ambiguous as all trade agreements’. Some will lose, some will gain. From a purely political perspective, assuming he’s reelected and the vote occurs at the beginning of the next Congress, voting for the TPP would be the best move to curry favor with his party. Such a vote is unlikely to damage his 2018 reelection chances too much, since it is very rare for incumbent Representatives to be defeated, and that only grows the longer they have been in office. From an ideological perspective, in addition to his identity as a Republican, the generally pro-free trade party, we can turn to the issues page of his campaign site, which doesn’t seem to have been updated since his 2014 run. There he makes general statements in favor of free trade, saying that promoting “trade and investment opportunities” is key for Maine industries and that free trade affects our national security. There is nothing specific to the TPP, but he comes across as predisposed to favoring free trade agreements.
This is not to say that Poliquin will not weigh the pros and cons of the TPP’s impact and cast a vote on its merits. But the prevailing political and ideological winds blow in a decidedly pro-TPP direction for Republicans in Congress like Poliquin. If the merits of the deal alone don’t paint a clear picture, those additional forces may be enough to sway his vote.
Update: A reader rightly pointed out that it is unfair to not mention Bruce Poliquin’s vote against Trade Promotion Authority last June, along with the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation. While the majority of Republicans voted yes, he voted no (190 Republicans voted yes, 50 voted no). I’ll explain TPA more when I do a full post on the TPP, but as legislation affecting trade ratification procedure, many saw it as a referendum on the TPP. At the time Poliquin did not quite pitch his opposition to it as a vote against the TPP, as many Democrats did, but he did cite concern over the New Balance factories. Poliquin has not returned to that vote as evidence of opposition to the deal in his recent statements on the TPP. His current position is still uncertain.
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