As president of the activist group Americans for Limited Government, Rick Manning has lobbied conservatives for years about the failings of free trade deals.
He says Donald Trump’s election shows that there’s been “a quantum shift in attitude” in the U.S. toward opposing such deals, and Republicans on Capitol Hill are coming around, too.
Manning, a former chief of staff of the public affairs shop at the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration, served on Trump’s transition team. He spoke recently to CQ Roll Call’s Shawn Zeller. An edited transcript follows:
Q. The fourth-quarter numbers are in and they show continued slow growth, some wage gains, and near full employment. Doesn’t that indicate that our current trade regime is working?
A. I would dispute that. We happen to have 9 million people aged 18 to 64 who have effectively dropped out of the economy.
It isn’t just our country aging. Half of the labor participation rate drop is people of working age. This isn’t full employment because we have massive amounts of people who are dramatically underemployed and others not included in the workforce at all. It’s why we are showing less than 3 percent growth. We haven’t exceeded that since 2005. We haven’t exceeded 4 percent growth since 2000.
The new normal is effectively a stagnant, declining economy.
Q. And trade is to blame?
A. We did give permanent normal trade relations status to China in 2000 and haven’t had a 4 percent growth rate since, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector and shipping those manufacturing jobs overseas has played a real role in slow growth.
Q. Doesn’t free trade create dynamism in the economy, allowing us to do what we do best with cheaper prices?
A. Here’s the problem with that argument. What we are being sold as free trade is not free trade, it is anti-competitive trade. The U.S. drops our tariffs, but developing countries don’t have to. While we are able to export the jobs to those countries, we aren’t able to export our goods and services. So it isn’t a free-trade deal.
Our workers can compete on a world stage, but these deals don’t create that environment. They are at their core skewed, based on a desire to redistribute wealth around the world. It benefits some people a lot and it does produce lower prices, but it also produces a hollowed-out economy and the wage stagnation that ends up creating the problems that we’re seeing.
Q. You’ve written about trade benefiting “crony capitalists.” What did you mean?
A. The people who sit at the table are not you and me. They represent those with a vested interest in flattening the regulatory regimes through the world. That’s what they should do. That’s their job.
As an investor in the stock market, I want companies to do everything they can to make me a profit. But let’s not be naive and think that they are negotiating based on our interest.
Q. Isn’t automation a big part of job loss in the manufacturing sector?
A. Automation is one of the reasons why if the trade deals are re-evaluated that U.S. manufacturing is going to return.
We won’t have the massive manufacturing floors of the past, but we’ll certainly have American workers working there and so automation is actually a positive thing that we shouldn’t fear.
This concept that there is a desire to go back to the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s model of massive numbers of people on a work floor, that’s absurd. No one wants to do that. It’s not realistic.
Q. How do you square opposition to these trade agreements with your support for limited government?
A. We have a Constitution and we believe the Constitution should be enforced. It established the sovereignty of the United States, which means borders. While there are those who believe the borders should be broken down, I don’t share that belief and Americans for Limited Government doesn’t.
Just because you support limited government doesn’t mean you support no government. A fundamental principle of driving freedom around the world is our own sovereignty. And one of the things you can do in trade deals is establish those values around the world of individual freedom by rewarding those who embrace them and not rewarding those who don’t.
We are supposed to stand up for principles of freedom, for principles of opportunity.
Q. How do trade deals threaten U.S. sovereignty?
A. It’s saying it doesn’t matter who you vote for. If there’s a regulation where they can sue you in international court to overturn it, why are we electing people to Congress?
A simple example was the country-of-origin labeling requirement that Congress enacted. Mexico and Canada took us to World Court and we lost.
Q. How has your message resonated on Capitol Hill?
A. It started out as a slow-go but we did get 54 Republican votes against giving President Obama trade promotion authority [in June 2015]. Most of them were the more conservative Republicans in the caucus.
With Donald Trump being elected president, we know that outside of the Beltway, amongst the Republican constituency, there is overwhelming support for taking a new look at these trade deals.
There’s been a quantum shift in attitude in the country opposing trade deals and one thing we know about politicians: They are pretty good at following what their constituents want.
Q. How much do you credit Trump with changing attitudes on trade?
A. The election of Donald Trump put a giant exclamation point on it. Republicans for years have been trying to figure out how to get a map where they can win the presidency, where they didn’t need to have every single thing go right to do it, and Donald Trump showed the map because the Rust Belt said no to the Democrats and the policies they were pursuing.
Q. How do you see the battle going forward in the GOP caucus now that Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
A. I think that number is naturally going to shift in our direction. That’s where the country is. That’s where their constituents are.
There isn’t a Washington, D.C. constituency that has lobbyists running around the Hill trying to make that argument to Republicans, but I think the argument’s been made by the American people.
Republicans who were knee-jerk supporters of trade deals in the past are looking at them with open eyes.
Q. Where does that leave the Chamber of Commerce?
A. The bottom line is everyone in this town has different objectives and the chamber serves a very good role and they represent their members very well.
On the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they took a shot and they lost.
Q. Some of what you’re saying sounds like it could come from a union boss.
A. Sometimes people from different ends of the spectrum can come up with the same answer.