TOPEKA — As a monumental trade deal President Donald Trump has labeled one of the worst works its way through renegotiation, Kansas’ two U.S. senators are pushing the administration to maintain the deal because of its benefits for Kansas farmers and ranchers.
Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, Kansas Republicans, have urged the administration to remain in the North American Free Trade Agreement in a series of speeches, committee proceedings, press releases and conversations, which earned Roberts Trump’s label as, “our NAFTA guy.”
“I have had many personal conversations with the president — one at the Christmas party at the White House, probably not the best time to talk to the president,” Roberts said.
Moran, Roberts and farm advocacy groups have warned pulling out of NAFTA, as Trump has threatened, could have devastating effects on Kansas farmers, who last year exported more than $4 billion in agricultural goods worldwide. Kansas exported more than $3.6 million in overall goods and services to Canada and Mexico last year, according to the International Trade Administration.
NAFTA eliminated many tariffs on goods exported and imported from the three countries and is credited with a growth in international trade. Critics say it shifted jobs overseas.
Losing the tariff-free trade opportunities would mean U.S. exporters would have to compete to sell in markets they’ve dominated under NAFTA.
“By walking away, it strengthens our competitors so when the market does come back all of sudden, we have to compete with them,” said Ryan Flickner, senior director of the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Flickner said the Kansas Farm Bureau also had been advocating on NAFTA’s behalf, and the organization is in “lockstep” with Moran and Roberts’ concerns. Moran and Congressman Roger Marshall, a Republican in Kansas’ big First District, both spoke at the organization’s annual meeting last week about the importance of NAFTA, and members sent 1,000 emails to the U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the White House and Kansas’ congressional delegation.
Bureau president Richard Felts also has been involved with a new Farmers for Free Trade advocacy group, Flickner said.
Todd Domer, vice president of communications for the Kansas Livestock Association, said his organization had spoken with Roberts and Moran because NAFTA has implications for livestock and beef trade, too. He said NAFTA results in approximately $2 billion beef exports each year. His organization does support updating NAFTA’s terms.
“We want them to do that in a manner that protects the existing provisions that have supported beef and agricultural exports,” Domer said.
Moran and Roberts said they had met with Ross on the importance of NAFTA. They both expressed concern the administration might leave NAFTA in order to force a better deal with Canada and Mexico.
“I’m very worried that this administration is going to terminate NAFTA,” Moran said, calling the strategy “very high-risk.”
Roberts also expressed concern about eliminating the three-country trade deal in favor of individual deals with countries.
“Can we improve it, sure? Should we try it, yes? But you don’t terminate something and then try to put it together again,” Roberts said. “That’s like Humpty Dumpty off of the wall.”
With farm commodity prices already low, losing markets would be a problem. Moran said he saw piles of grain on the ground outside an elevator in Kensington because demand has been low. Losing Mexico as a large purchaser of Kansas grain would be “particularly devastating,” he said.
“We have strong competition now. Secondly, that there is lots of grain available,” Moran said. “We need more markets, not less.”
Veronica Nigh, an economist for the American Farm Bureau, said losing export markets would mean a sharp decline in income for farmers, who already have struggled with low crop prices for several years.
“So farmers, I think, would find it really difficult to survive if prices fell again as the result of lost trade deals,” Nigh said.
Nigh said her organization had started to hear from exporters that their Mexican customers are concerned about the negotiations and starting to shop for non-American suppliers despite benefits from buying U.S. goods.
Moran said many of the states that would be affected by NAFTA withdrawal are ones that voted for Trump.
“They need to make certain that they wouldn’t be taken for granted,” Moran said.
Roberts called the fight for NAFTA a “paradox” because Trump won many small towns and rural areas during the 2016 presidential election.
“These are the folks that brought him home,” Roberts said.