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Guest Editorial: Minnesota's congressional delegation should lead on free trade

Carlos M. Gutierrez, a Cuban immigrant who rose to be the president and CEO of Kellogg as well as secretary of commerce in the George W. Bush administration, received the Economic Club of Minnesota's 2018 Champion of Free Trade Award this week.

The award is named after the late Bill Frenzel, the longtime Republican congressman from Minnesota's Third District who consistently took the right approach to trade by forging bipartisan coalitions to pass landmark legislation that built livelihoods, and lives, of citizens in free-trading nations.

Minnesota's current congressional delegation would be wise to emulate Frenzel. In fact, Gutierrez told an editorial writer before his Economic Club speech that a unified, bipartisan embrace of free-trade principles would stand out as "a big shift in the political landscape that's been very divided on trade."

The divisions are apparent in both parties.

"Ironically, it's the Republican Party that's become anti-trade, so there could be a big opportunity for the Democrats," Gutierrez said. "Free-trade Republicans have not spoken out; they've remained silent." As for Democrats, "I think their voice needs to be heard."

Indeed, members of both parties need to speak up more forcefully for free trade — and for Minnesota, whose export-oriented economy will wither if current conditions prevail.

There are already serious signs of stress in the agricultural sector, with rising bankruptcies in Minnesota and throughout the country as farmers contend with low commodity prices exacerbated by the unabated trade war with China and trade tensions with many other nations, including key allies.

But there's reason for optimism — and a free-trade consensus.

Minnesota "has great advantages not every state in the nation has," Gutierrez said, naming natural resources and the concentration of Fortune 500 companies, many of which helped the state set a second-quarter record of $5.9 billion of exports.

Exports mean jobs, which should coalesce our congressional delegation. But too often those who have been elected adhere to national leaders' anti-trade rhetoric, be it from President Donald Trump or from Bernie Sanders, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate whose anti-free-trade agreement screeds seemingly influenced Hillary Clinton to abandon multilateral pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That agreement would have paid economic and diplomatic dividends to the U.S. and member nations.

Some members of Congress need to buck their parties. Republican Rep.-elect Jim Hagedorn, for instance, built his campaign on unswerving loyalty to Trump. He ought to be more loyal to his constituents, who are hit hard by the sagging ag economy in Minnesota's farm-rich First District.

Hagedorn can look at the example set by Sixth District Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, who, along with Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is on the right side of the issue, and history, on opening up trade with Cuba.

They can all also look at the consistent congressional example of outgoing Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen. Although recently defeated, the congressman had a stalwart free-trade stance worthy of one of his Third District predecessors — Bill Frenzel.

"Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers are outside of the U.S. We have the best multinational companies in the world, the best-managed, the most innovative," Gutierrez said. "For us to retrench would be to set aside one of our biggest competitive advantages."

"Now," Gutierrez added, "is the time for profiles of courage."

That fortitude can be found in advancing free trade.