Ron Klink: Democrats, embrace fair trade policies to win in 2020

This week, U.S. Trade Ambassador Robert Lighthizer is on Capitol Hill attempting to “woo” Democrats into supporting President Trump’s trade deals with U.S. trading partners.

As the Trump administration continues to push its fair trade agenda, both on Capitol Hill and around the country, Democrats should return to their roots and embrace these common-sense fair trade policies that were once the bedrock of our party and understand that these plans support thousands of American workers, especially in places that are critical to reclaiming the White House in 2020.

During my time in the U.S. Congress fighting for the hardworking men and women of Pennsylvania, I represented New Kensington and dozens of other towns forgotten as steel and aluminum jobs moved overseas due to mass foreign government subsidization. These great American patriots are hardworking, tax-paying Americans and Democrats must remember that we were – and still are – the party of organized labor and American workers.

Laboring under the theory that “free trade” exists, some Democratic quarters have criticized the Section 232 tariffs that level the playing field for tens of thousands of aluminum and steelworkers as aimed at the wrong actors. What they fail to recognize is that “free” trade does not exist, someone pays the bill and far too often it is hard-working Americans that see their jobs offshored to the countries providing the most illegal subsidies. For many years, hardworking Americans in aluminum smelting communities had been harmed by global aluminum overcapacity driven by foreign government subsidies, provided by friend and foe alike.

Global aluminum overcapacity suppressed industry growth and put the domestic industry at an unfair disadvantage with countries who subsidized their production. A recent 2019 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development affirmed what many aluminum workers had seen for years – mass government subsidization of aluminum producers in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Russia, India, and the Middle East countries came at the direct expense of aluminum production in the United States.

These illicit trade practices had devastating effects not just in my home state of Pennsylvania, but across the United States and in states like Indiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, upstate New York, and Washington state. Between 2000 and 2017, subsidized overproduction by foreign producers forced 18 of 23 domestic aluminum smelters to shut down and more than 13,000 good domestic production jobs disappeared.

While it is an unconventional policy, the Trump administration’s Section 232 tariff program has breathed new life into the aluminum industry and given union workers reason to celebrate. And it is for this reason, that I urge all my Democratic colleagues to stand strong with American workers and support the Section 232 tariff program.

Since the Section 232 tariffs were implemented, by the end of this quarter U.S. primary aluminum production will have increased by 67 percent, bringing back thousands of jobs and resurrecting small towns hit hardest by unfair trade. These jobs – jobs which now have a future due to the administration’s trade policy – are strong jobs that bring economic well-being and prosperity to many small towns across the United States.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, Section 232 aluminum tariffs have restored over 200,000 new jobs. During this same period, the rest of the U.S. economy grew by over 1.7 million jobs – chipping away at the argument that skeptics raised suggesting tariffs would have negative impacts on downstream industries.

The facts show that the tariffs are working and overall have not had widespread negative effects on the economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute, there has been a 9.1 percent growth in both aluminum and steel downstream industries, underscoring the notion that the concerns of Doomsday tariff critics are simply wrong.

As Democrats, we once stood for common sense trade policies that supported American workers and put our industries first. Amidst economic changes, like globalization, automation, and the displacement of workers, I’m concerned that my party has lost sight of what made Democrats the party of working men and women in the first place.

If Democrats want to win back my home state of Pennsylvania and retake the White House in 2020, we need to stand with ordinary American workers and support fair trade policies. Maintaining a strong Section 232 tariff program is an essential component to the vitality of America’s manufacturing industry.

Democratic Congressman Ron Klink was first elected to the United States Congress in 1992 and served four consecutive terms representing American steel and aluminum workers in Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District.

Democrats will win in 2020 by backing ‘America First’ policy

With more Democrats announcing their campaigns for president in 2020, it is critical for these candidates and the party understand the lessons the 2016 election has to offer. Some, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have recognized that one of the keys to the victory of Donald Trump was his ability to appropriate Democratic messaging, notably that our trade system was not working well for many working class Americans.

For decades, American manufacturing has been forced to bear the worst of excess global capacities across numerous industries like aluminum and steel. The system was not working, and our country became a dumping ground for our competitors and allies. President Trump tapped into the frustration felt by these workers in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Democrats must adopt trade policies that stand up to foreign governments that manipulate global markets at the expense of our workers. This was once at the core of our Democratic ideals. Abandoning these principles will only ensure that President Trump has a second term.

My home state of Indiana has the highest percent of manufacturing employment in the United States and has long believed in the tradition of “Made in America.” We built a strong manufacturing base up and down the value chain by supporting the common sense trade policies that put our workers first. The aluminum industry in my state is an example of what happens when we allow foreign governments to manipulate markets.

For nearly a decade, the American aluminum industry was forced to bear the burden of the excess capacity crisis. About 80 percent of domestic aluminum smelters across the country were forced to shut down between 2010 and 2017. Tragically, that led to the elimination of more than 14,000 good domestic jobs. Even the aluminum smelter in my state was forced to idle at the end of 2015 after laying off more than 660 workers. President Obama previously tried to work with our trading partners to address the excess capacity crisis but was often meet with resistance and ultimately was not able to yield the results that the industry needed to remain viable.

My service on the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committee helped me to understand that healthy aluminum and steel industries in this country are vital to our national security. We cannot allow our national security to lie entirely in the hands of others. A recent report published by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development confirms that widespread subsidization across all the major aluminum producing countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Norway, China, India, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is one of the principle drivers of the excess capacity crisis. These foreign governments pumped billions of dollars into their aluminum industries to artificially maintain and expand capacity. The price of aluminum then collapsed and devastated the American aluminum industry and thousands of workers.

The Section 232 tariffs were imposed in 2018 to address the worst effects of the excess capacity crisis. American primary aluminum producers have since been able to restart their idled capacity and will have increased production by 67 percent by the end of this quarter. I joined a panel last month to discuss the groundbreaking white paper from the Economic Policy Institute on the Section 232 aluminum tariffs and their effects. Using facts and not speculative economic modes, the study showed that the tariffs have not harmed downstream industries. Moreover, domestic manufacturing continues to expand, with the sector adding more than 260,000 jobs over last year, according to the latest employment report.

In 1980, my father made his final campaign stop at the Alcoa smelter in Warrick, Indiana. The Section 232 investigation and ultimate imposition of the aluminum tariffs helped the facility restart operations. At the time of the restart announcement, Alcoa representatives thanked the federal and state officials for their support, stating that “Alcoa appreciates the actions the Trump administration has taken” to address the challenges faced by the American aluminum industry including from Chinese excess capacity.

In the 2018 midterms, some of my fellow Democratic senators who were vocally opposed to the Section 232 aluminum and steel tariffs lost their seats. With many Democrats announcing their campaigns for president in 2020, it is important for us to remember the principles that made us the party of the American worker and recognize that President Trump won in 2016 in large part by integrating these principles. The Democratic Party can win in 2020 if it learns lessons from 2016 and embraces trade policy that rebalances the market to support thousands of American workers.

Evan Bayh served as a United States senator from Indiana from 1999 to 2011 after serving as the 46th governor of Indiana from 1989 to 1997.