On Saturday, Congressman Vern Ehlers addressed a number of issues at his annual town hall meeting, including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Representative Ehlers’ responses to questions regarding CAFTA indicated that he will likely vote for the trade agreement, although he is claims that he is undecided and is “waiting to see how it is negotiated” before he makes a decision. In response to three audience questions on CAFTA, one of the more talked about issues at the meeting, Ehlers made a number of statements supporting free trade agreement–stating that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was good for Michigan and that the state benefited from it and that trade agreements like NAFTA create jobs, not job loss. When a representative of the Michigan Farmers Union stated that NAFTA has done nothing for Michigan, a statement that received much applause, the Congressman stated that some of the strongest supporters of CAFTA are farmers and that it is really only the sugar beet farmers that are opposed to the agreement. This sort of belittling response characterized many of his responses to questions on CAFTA, where he took the opportunity to tell members of the audience–many of whom clearly knew more about CAFTA than he did–that CAFTA is proposed and not yet in effect and that people complain about NAFTA and job loss to China, but that NAFTA does not include China.
According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, all 50 states have lost jobs as a result of NAFTA with Michigan being one of the states with the most job loss. Representative Ehlers was right in stating that Michigan gained jobs as a result of NAFTA, Michigan gained nearly 46,000 jobs as a result of the agreement. However, Ehlers failed to take into account the 97,411 jobs lost as a result of NAFTA, creating an end result of 51,466 jobs lost in Michigan as a result of the agreement. A 2001 report by Jobs with Justice documented jobs certified as lost by NAFTA and found many NAFTA-related jobs lost in West Michigan–2,700 at Greenville-based Electrolux, 885 at Johnson Controls in Holland, and 600 at the Lifesavers plant in Holland.
The first 25 minutes of the meeting consisted of remarks prepared by Ehlers focusing on the budget, social security, transportation, the recently passed energy bill, and jobs and manufacturing. Ehlers expressed support for making deep cuts to discretionary funding in order to lessen the debt, but opposes cuts to Medicaid. On social security, Ehlers said that he “admires President Bush’s courage” in seeking to reform it because it is an issue that most politicians “would not touch.” The congressman supports reforms in social security, because according to his numbers, the system will be taking in fewer taxes than it pays out by 2017, resulting in the trust fund going bankrupt by 2041. While Ehlers says this will not affect seniors today or those retiring in the next ten years, high school students today will get 30% less in benefits if the social security continues to operate as it is currently structured, which, according to Ehlers, is “not fair.”
Ehlers criticized the energy bill that was recently passed in the House, charging that it primarily gave federal government assistance to Exxon Mobil, Shell, and BP in order to help them make money off oil rather than addressing the fact that other sources of energy need to be develop. On jobs and manufacturing, Ehlers expressed concern about unemployment rates in Michigan–the highest in the country–and stated that manufacturing is very weak at the present time. Whereas many people have pointed to the problem of corporations shifting production overseas in efforts to increase profits by using low labor costs, Ehlers said that the problem was that Michigan “needs to learn to compete better” and suggested that many jobs were lost because increased productivity has lessened the total number of jobs needed to produce most goods.
Aside from CAFTA, Ehlers also ignored the occupation of Iraq during his opening remarks. During the question and answer period Ehlers faced two questions about the $300 billion dollars spent on the war and the nearly 1,600 United States soldiers killed in the war to which he responded with vague statements about how the situation in Iraq is getting better. He gave few specifics, mentioning that the US military continues to engage the insurgency and that the military is working to get Iraqi security forces trained to take over the security jobs. While he claimed that the vote giving President Bush authority to attack Iraq was one of the most difficult votes of his career and charging that Bush mishandled the war and that President Bush and Condoleezza Rice were “incredibly naive” in assuming that Iraqis would greet US soldiers with open arms, he still supports the war.