Trade deal, spending package overshadowed by impeachment

Trade: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accompanied by House Congress members, speaks at a news conference Dec. 10 to discuss the USMCA trade agreement.
Trade: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accompanied by House Congress members, speaks at a news conference Dec. 10 to discuss the USMCA trade agreement.

While the impeachment hearings and vote have dominated headlines, legislators and President Donald Trump made two significant agreements last week — the House of Representatives passed a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada and Trump signed a $1.4 trillion federal spending package approved by Congress.

Both of these items were identified as priorities by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who represents Union County, when he spoke with the News-Times earlier this month. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, known as USMCA, was heralded by both Republicans and Democrats as an upgrade to the previous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). USMCA will now move to the Senate for approval.

"I'm glad the Speaker [Rep. Nancy Pelosi] agreed to have a vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement," Westerman said. "That will have a direct impact on Arkansas; there are about 7,000 manufacturing jobs in the state that depend on trade with Canada and Mexico. El Dorado and Union County is a big manufacturing area with lots of great jobs and great opportunities, but you've got to have markets to sell those products into."

Westerman provided the recent announcement by Standard Lithium that its demonstration facility was operational as an example of the importance of having good trading partners. He said that new manufacturing jobs are important to strengthen local economies that have been damaged by recent facility closings, such as the Georgia-Pacific Corp.'s shut down of its Crossett plant, putting approximately 550 people out of work.

"The Crossett plant shutting down, that impacts people in Union County as well," Westerman said. "It's all linked, and we need to continually be working to make sure we've got good trading partners. There's tremendous upside potential there with Standard Lithium, considering the demand for lithium worldwide."

The agreement, in part, will allow U.S. farmers access to the Canadian dairy market and require Mexico to pass more labor-friendly regulations. Intellectual property protections and new environmental regulations were highlighted in a fact sheet about the trade agreement released by the federal government.

After the bill was signed, Westerman tweeted "We've said for months that USMCA would be overwhelmingly bipartisan, if Speaker Pelosi would just bring it to the House floor. The final vote of the year proved us right: 385-41. USMCA will be a huge win for American trade. I only wish we could've voted on it sooner."

The $1.4 trillion spending package which Trump signed late Friday evening will prevent a government shutdown like the one the U.S. endured last year, will raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21 and will allocate federal money to research gun violence for the first time in decades. The appropriations bill includes funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the 2020 census. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) highlighted Arkansas-specific items in the spending package.

"Funding the government is a basic responsibility of Congress that provides accountability and transparency to the American people. Passage of these pieces of legislation creates certainty for the military and federal agencies as they plan for the future and fund their current priorities," Boozman said.

Items highlighted by Boozman include:

$47 million for a C-130H/J Fuselage Trainer facility at Little Rock Air Force Base; $1.1 million for Army National Guard range expansion to improve the multi-purpose machine gun range for mounted unit training at Fort Chaffee; more than $20 million for munitions manufacturing at Pine Bluff Arsenal; more than $525 million for Army, Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps rockets produced in Arkansas; and funding for Community Health Centers (CHC). In Arkansas, there are more than 130 CHC facilities that help nearly 200,000 people get the medical, dental, vision and behavioral health care services they need.

The spending package will add to the federal deficit, which the C0ngressional Budget Office predicts will be more than $1 trillion for fiscal year 2020.

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