News & Politics

Sending a Message on Trade

In considering Rob Portman's nomination to the position of trade representative, the Senate will have a unique opportunity to seriously analyze where America's trade policy has gone wrong.
At first glance, President Bush's nomination of Rep. Rob Portman (R) to be the new U.S. trade representative may seem like an encouraging sign. Portman, after all, is from Ohio – a state ravaged by corporate-backed free trade deals. As one study shows, Portman's state has lost more than 52,000 jobs because of our unfair trade policy. Naturally, then, you'd expect him to have a particularly good grasp at how America's current trade policy is hurting our country.

Instead, though, Portman has been one of the most outspoken advocates for this disastrous trade policy. As a senior member of the congressional committee that oversees trade policy, he has supported every major piece of free trade legislation that's come before him, while pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industries that push these deals. These trade deals have been deliberately swept clean of any provisions to make sure our trading partners adhere to wage, environmental and human rights standards, thus forcing Americans to compete in a race to the bottom with some of the most desperate workers on the planet.

Worse, Portman has made statements about this trade policy that insult the public's intelligence. For instance, he actually claimed "I don't think GM went to Mexico because of NAFTA." He said this even though studies showed that immediately after NAFTA passed, "GM jobs in the United States were cut by 38,000 workers."

During his nomination ceremony at the White House, it was more of the same. Portman claimed America's corporate trade policy "opens markets to create jobs, a higher standard of living and greater economic growth." But as the Economic Policy Institute notes, the trade deficits created by Portman's trade policy accounts for almost 1 million job losses since 2000. Not coincidentally, America experienced a recession, and income fell for middle-class families of every type during this same period, as free trade policy forced more American workers to compete with slave labor in places like China. Portman and every other free-trade proponent in Washington knows these statistics, yet they continue to spew out their drivel.

But don't trust the dissonance between Portman's words and real-world facts to know where his loyalties lie. Trust the small manufacturers and business owners that have been ravaged by Portman's free trade orthodoxy. The U.S. Business & Industry Council, the trade group that represents America's family-owned Main Street businesses, gave Portman the lowest ranking of any member of the Ohio delegation in helping to create and protect good-paying American jobs.

The Senate will soon consider Portman's nomination, meaning lawmakers will have a unique opportunity to seriously analyze where America's trade policy has gone wrong. Senators from both parties in recent months have expressed new reservations about continuing to walk blindly down Corporate America's free trade path. Their first step towards turning things around would be to reject Portman's nomination.

Such a move would send a signal to the world that America is no longer only going to consider Big Business' agenda in our trade negotiations, and that we are going to start getting serious about things like wages, human rights, and environmental standards. It would also send a signal to American workers that their interests, and not just big money, are driving public policy.
David Sirota was the top spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. He is currently writing a book on the middle class economic squeeze for Crown Publishers. You can contact him at