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Why Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown Thinks The USMCA Is Different

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Democrats and the White House seem to have reached an agreement over the USMCA. That's the trade deal with Mexico and Canada that would replace NAFTA and deliver a major political win to President Trump. It includes provisions for digital trade, stronger enforcement of labor and environmental standards, and protection for intellectual property.

One of the senators supporting the bill is Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio. More than 25 years in Congress, he's never supported a trade agreement - until this one. So when we spoke with him earlier today, we asked - why now?

SHERROD BROWN: Well, every trade agreement in my time in the House and Senate had been written by corporate interests. Workers are never really at the table. There are a few things in these agreements for workers. The Trump renegotiation of NAFTA that he presented to Congress was more of the same. It was a corporate special interest bill. It was good for the drug companies. It had nothing for workers. And I, working with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Wyden and the labor movement, we made it very clear we will not support another corporate trade agreement unless it has strong provisions for workers.

CORNISH: Let's talk about that. You mentioned Ron Wyden, the other senator and Democrat who's endorsed this as well. I see big changes for workers in Mexico. It makes it easier for them to unionize, and it requires higher wages there, stipulates that Mexican trucks can cross the U.S. border, meet higher safety regulations. How is all of this supposed to help the American worker?

BROWN: Well, it helps the American worker because it means that if standards go up in Mexico - if workers are paid more, they're more likely to buy American - products made in the United States. Companies are less likely to shut down production in Mansfield, Ohio, or Toledo or Lima and move to Mexico if Mexican workers are treated better, can unionize, are paid better wages. And if you do that, that's when trade works.

I mean, Democrats and progressives want to vote for trade agreements but only if those trade agreements work to build a middle class in the United States and in Mexico. And this has taken a step towards that. Unfortunately, the Trump agenda on taxes is still such that if you shut down production - you have a company in Ohio, you're paying a 21% corporate tax rate; you move to Mexico, you pay half that. So...

CORNISH: So will this trade deal make a dent if there's still this financial incentive in tax policy to leave?

BROWN: Well, this trade deal will help. But as long as the president is in lockstep with corporate interests, it makes it much harder. It will not solve every problem by a long shot, but it's a significant step. That's why I'm supporting it.

CORNISH: One obstacle Mexico seems to be pushing back on - the requirements for oversight. That would kind of deploy U.S. monitors to review whether or not they're holding up those labor standards. How willing do you think the Mexican government is to support that in their labor force?

BROWN: First of all, the new Mexican president ran on a labor agenda. He's the most pro-labor president that they've had in my adult lifetime, so that's a good step. But if they don't enforce - if they don't allow enforcement of these provisions, then their goods are denied at the border. They don't get the NAFTA benefits. So it's in their interest to do this.

They made some noise during the negotiations. And while the Trump administration continued to fight against our Brown-Wyden provisions for workers, they, in part, blamed it on the Mexican government. But they were the ones that were blocking us and stopping us. That's why it took a year-and-a-half to convince them that if they wanted a real renegotiated NAFTA, they have to put provisions for American workers in the bill. And the president, kicking and screaming, was brought into that because he had to be.

CORNISH: I want to go back to some of the original arguments for NAFTA back in 1994. Right? It was supposed to be a free trade agreement. Now all these years later, you essentially have an update that some argue builds up rather than breaks down trade barriers. Are we looking at higher prices, especially in areas like the auto sector? And is this something Americans just have to get used to? What is your thinking on this?

BROWN: Well, first, these were never free trade agreements. They were always provisions. They're written as a collection of special interest provisions to help various industries and special interests in the United States. When workers make more money - American workers are working and Mexican workers are working, boats all rise. And that's what these...

CORNISH: So higher prices are OK if everyone's making more money.

BROWN: Well, I'm not - I'm not going to let you say higher prices are OK if you do that. But I think you're going to see workers making more money. Mexican workers will be able to buy American products, and that's the whole point of these trade agreements.

CORNISH: Ohio has faced a severe decline in manufacturing jobs. According to Georgetown researchers, a portion of the manufacturing jobs in the state shrank by more than half between 1970 and 2016. So this is a longtime process. How confident are you that companies would move back to a place like Lordstown or in Ohio or elsewhere?

BROWN: As GM continued to shut down production in Ohio and opened production in Mexico and the president fundamentally did nothing except say, don't sell your homes; jobs are coming back - I am not going to promise that with this agreement. I think what this agreement does is it makes companies less likely to move. So we're not going to see huge numbers come back, Audie, but we are going to begin to stop the flow of jobs going out. And that's, to me, the whole point of this agreement - to fight for workers and to make sure jobs stay in the United States competitively.

CORNISH: Senator Sherrod Brown, thank you so much for your time.

BROWN: Glad to do it. Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.