Former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Talks Trade

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Scott Miller: I'm Scott.

Bill Reinsch: I'm Bill.

Scott & Bill: And we're the Trade Guys.

Andrew Schwartz: You're listening to the Trade Guys, a podcast produced by CSIS where we talk about trade in terms that everyone can understand. I'm H. Andrew Schwartz, and I'm here with Scott Miller and Bill Reinsch, the CSIS Trade Guys. On this very special episode of the Trade Guys, I left the Trade Guys at home because I wanted to interview Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She's a republican from Florida, and she shared the House Foreign Relations Committee from 2011 to 2013. She will have retired when you hear this, but this is a really terrific interview, and, as you'll hear, she's got a lot of really thoughtful and interesting ideas on trade and about how the politics of trade are changing, all on this episode of the Trade Guys.

Andrew Schwartz: Miami is like my favorite place, second home away from home.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Hey, I like that, and if that's true, then you've been all over my district 'cause I've got Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Little Havana.

Andrew Schwartz: Yeah.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Oh my gosh.

Andrew Schwartz: Yeah. Yeah.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: [crosstalk 00:01:17]

Andrew Schwartz: Alright. So I wanted to ask you, how has your stance on trade policy evolved over time from being a 'no' on NAFTA and the WTO to a 'yes' on a slew of different trade agreements later in your career?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Well, you are so right. Thank you for, first of all, thank you for this opportunity, but you're so right. I opposed NAFTA in '93 because Mexico at that time did not have the best leadership, and Mexico was heavily involved with trading with Cuba. I opposed establishing the WTO. Then the next year in '94, but I voted against withdrawing in 2000 because, well, I saw that changes were possible. And at that point I thought, we were gonna be able to make the changes that we want.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: I opposed granting China normal trade relations in 2000, that same year, and why? Because of the human rights abuses, because the rule of law concerns, and in fact, twice as many Republicans voted in favor as Democrats. But I opposed it because of China's record, and I think that's why you've got to make that kind of distinction. Who are we trading with? I supported trade agreements with Columbia, a good ally, South Korea.

Andrew Schwartz: Sure.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Panama, CAFTA-DR, which was a Dominican Republic and Central American countries with Bahrain, with Singapore, with Chile, but unlike China and Russia because those were despotic countries. But I am in favor of free trade agreements with free and fair and allied countries. So I opposed granting then later, Russia, normal trade relations. It would have repealed Jackson–Vanik, but I voted yes on the bill. Why? You know, in legislation, you've got to look at the totality of the bill. This was our vehicle to get the Magnitsky Act, and the Magnitsky Act has been the premier bill and law that we have used to sanction human rights violators.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So in order to get to the good stuff, you have to swallow some of the bad stuff, but what we've seen is that ... My philosophy is, we've got to choose our trading partners carefully.

Andrew Schwartz: Right.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Some regimes don't have any interests in complying with standards on human rights, don't have any interest in complying with the rule of law, and they're not going to change no matter how much we trade with them. We have this romantic notion that if we trade with them, they will be more Democratic. We have seen that that is not the case. Clinton made the argument that trade with China was about national security, and that was really a mistaken belief that economic openings and free market reform, all of this, would lead to democracy, would lead to respect for the rule of law, would lead to a full array of political rights for the Chinese people, human rights for the Chinese people. And Obama, President Obama made the same misguided argument about Cuba, and what have we seen after opening up to Cuba supposedly?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Well, that regime is more repressive than ever, no matter how much window dressing and propaganda they push, and what we've seen are traditionally the Democratic party was the party that argued against free trade agreements, usually because of human rights or labor concerns in the partnered countries. Well, the concerns that American jobs would move overseas. So we've seen kind of a shift in trade policy and the feelings and the underpinnings of trade policy because we saw what happened, globalization, globalism, multilateralism. They've become dirty words in recent years. Why? Because politicians underestimated the negative impact of trade deals, especially with China joining the WTO. The negative impact on American jobs and industries and overestimated how much trade could help spread liberal ideas. And now we see, what's interesting is that President Trump, a Republican president, now embodies this movement.

Andrew Schwartz: You've really hit on something here, Congresswoman. You've been in the House for over 30 years. You've been Chairwoman of the House, Foreign Relations Committee-

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Longer than you've been alive, I believe.

Andrew Schwartz: No, not quite. I'm a little older than that.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Almost.

Andrew Schwartz: You've seen a lot, and you've seen support shift on trade over time. Democrats had been anti trade, became pro trade. Why the shift?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Well, I think that we have been seeing as abdicating U.S. Sovereignty because of these trade deals. People have looked at what has happened in our economy and they said, "Well, why not America first? What about manufacturing all of our goods have been made somewhere else." The strength that globalism and multilateralism and all these multilateral organizations, especially with China joining the WTO, has not produced a refill income enhancer for the American public. They look at their paycheck, and what they've seen is, China is favoring its own industry's. They're discriminating against U.S. company's. They're involved in currency manipulation and illegal subsidies, even though China's a member of the WTO, and the WTO rules say hey, this isn't allowed. You can't favor your own companies. You can't do subsidies.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So I always say that the problem isn't free trade. The problem is the countries with which we're making deals, and that the deals aren't being enforced. Countries like China don't play by the rules. We need to be more strategic in our approach, and that's been the real focus.

Andrew Schwartz: What do you think of the politics of trade in the Congress right now?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Well, it's been quite a change, and all of it, I know I keep saying China joining the WTO, but that really brought it home to people. President Trump has got a good pulse on the American public, and they're thinking, you know, how is this trade benefited me? Has it benefited my family? And look, I'm not in favor of Trump's tariffs, and I'm not in favor of these trade wars. But what we need to do is vigorously enforce the deals on the books, bring cases to the WTO, challenge China, impose penalties on China for the subsidies and favoring its own companies, and expand trade opportunities with countries that play by the rules and see the world in the same way that we do.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: We've got a lot of allied countries. We should favor them. We've got to look at it through a lens of human rights, human liberty, and that would be a way of undercutting China and its predatory practices and build a system that's based on trust, that's built on freedom, that's built on fairness. And that's what the American people see. They see that these trade deals has not helped them at all. In fact, they see jobs going overseas, and I think that we, in the Congress, underestimated that negative impact on trade deals. And until we get this right, until we see, my gosh, are these trade deals hurting American jobs, are they hurting American industries? I think that we're gonna keep getting it wrong, and I think that President Trump's trade policies will be gaining favor because people are saying, "Hey, I'm not benefited for this."

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So we should deal and help partner countries. We should punish countries that aren't playing by the rules.

Andrew Schwartz: Do you think this is something that Republicans and Democrats can work on together in the next Congress and with this president?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Absolutely. I'm very optimistic, even though I will not be here. I think that more Republicans and Democrats can work on why free trade is good. Free trade agreements allow U.S. Exports to enter countries with fewer barriers. It gives American businesses a much needed boost in revenues, and I think that we need to have the American public understand this, that there's a fundamental misconception regarding free trade agreements because the U.S. economy is a very open one. And free trade agreements are primarily about removing the barriers in other countries to U.S. exports.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So people don't really get that. Not because that they're silly or stupid. No, no, no. We have not done our job of saying, you know, when we talk about free trade, it's to help American businesses so that our product can go to other countries and without having these punishing tariffs and fees. Small businesses will be able to export more. Foreign trade barriers have got to come down, and that can only happen if we get more trade agreements that will help level the playing field. And I know that's a cliché, and people are always talking about leveling the playing field. But that's so true. The U.S. Doesn't have that level playing field, and we've gotta get rid of barriers.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So in that case, you can make the argument Democrats and Republicans together, that free trade is good for the American economy, but on the other hand, free trade can be bad. Why? Look, well you've got countries like China undermining U.S. Businesses abroad, putting our companies at a severe disadvantage. And what happens? That results in lost sales and jobs. So we've gotta choose our trade partners in the right way. If regimes don't have any interests in human rights or the rule of law, why do we think that by trading with them, we're gonna make them into democracies? I think that the American public sees through that, and they say, "No. This is not a good deal for me." And I'm going to be opposed.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So it's kind of shifted where the Republicans were always the free traders in a generalized way, and whenever you generalize of course, there are always exceptions. But the Democrats would always put barriers saying, "No. We've gotta have fair trade, and they've gotta support worker's rights, et cetera." And I think the American people are more inclined to be opposing trade deals because they support U.S. Workers, and they see the U.S. Workers are being hurt because of these trade deals, because we're not making reforms in efficiency and flexibility or oversight.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: So let's choose our trade partners carefully. Let's not think that trading with them is going to make them democracies. It hasn't worked in Russia or China or any other places, and instead, get the best deal that we can. Remove the barriers so that American businesses have that level playing field.

Andrew Schwartz: Congresswoman, I know you have a vote coming up. So we're gonna let you go, but cannot thank you enough. Bless you for your service for all these years in the United States Congress. You'll be missed on Capitol Hill, but I know you'll still be around and your thoughts and your presence will still be with us. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Well, and I'm looking forward to— we wanna do everything we can to promote American businesses and get good deals with partnered countries, not with our enemy.

Andrew Schwartz: You got it. We'll talk to you soon.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Alright. Gracias, amigo.

Andrew Schwartz: To our listeners, if you have a question for the Trade Guys, write us at That's We'll read some of your emails and have the Trade Guys react to it. We're also now on Spotify. So you can find us there when you're listening to Rolling Stones, or you're listening to Tom Petty, or whatever you're listening. Thank you Trade Guys.

Scott & Bill: Thank you.

Andrew Schwartz: You've been listening to the Trade Guys, a CSIS podcast.