The 6th Congressional District is home to two of Kentucky’s key industries: bourbon distilling and auto manufacturing. And both of those industries stand to lose under trade policies offered by the Trump administration.
Congressman Andy Barr, the Republican who is in his fourth term representing the district, says he supports President Donald Trump’s efforts to get better trade deals, but he hopes tariffs aren’t part of the equation.
“Tariffs are taxes and when we impose tariffs on imports, that drives up costs for U.S. consumers,” says Barr. “In general we should be for free trade.”
Barr talked about trade policy, immigration, the opioid crisis, and workforce development issues on KET’s Congressional Update.
President Trump’s tariffs or threats of tariffs have caused headaches for the auto industry, which faced higher prices for steel and aluminum, and bourbon makers, who faced the prospect of retaliatory tariffs by the European Union. Kentucky pork and soybean farmers have also suffered in Trump’s trade battles, facing their own retaliatory tariffs by China.
At the end of May, the president proposed a new 5 percent tariff on all goods imported from Mexico unless that nation did more to stem the tied of illegal immigration. Toyota Motor Corp. warned such a move would raise their costs by $1 billion.
“The tariffs on Mexico would’ve disrupted our supply chain, and so I obviously opposed those,” says Barr.
Yet the congressman says the tariff threat against Mexico was a good strategic move because it got their government to help with the border crisis. Beyond the tariff issue, Barr says he’s pleased the president is working to get better trade agreements for the U.S.
“We’ve been getting ripped off by a lot of these trade deals that haven’t worked for American workers, for American businesses, American farmers and ranchers, especially with respect to China,” he says.
“With China, it’s not just about getting access to the Chinese market, it’s also about… the theft of intellectual property, the forced transfer of technology… their industrial espionage, and mercantilism,” says Barr. “We’ve got to put in place a trading regime that stops those unfair practices that really represent not just economic threat to the U.S. but a national security threat as well.”
Barr sees getting to a better deal with China as a multi-step process that includes Congress approving the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that the Trump Administration negotiated as a replacement to the existing North America Free Trade Agreement. Barr says USMCA is a much better deal for American workers.
“According to the International Trade Commission, it would produce an additional $68 billion in economic output for the United States [and] another 176,000 new jobs,” he says. “Most of those new jobs would be in the manufacturing sector.”
But Congressional approval isn’t guaranteed. Barr says his Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives want tougher provisions that require Mexico to improve labor standards and wages. Barr supports those measures, saying such provisions will level the playing field for labor and prevent American manufacturing jobs from going to Mexico. But the congressman also doesn’t want ratification to be delayed.
“Every day that goes by that we don’t get this agreement, that is a day we that don’t have more jobs in this country,” he says.
Ratification of USMCA will give Trump the momentum to make a better deal with the European Union, according to Barr, which he says will then give the U.S. greater leverage in trade talks with China.
Even though Mexico has stepped up its immigration enforcement efforts, Barr says the U.S. still faces a humanitarian crisis along its southern border. He says Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended 144,000 migrants in May alone, which he says is the largest monthly total in more than a decade. Many of those taken into custody are children, which Barr contends is the result of a failed U.S. immigration policy that he says incentivizes human trafficking.
“Many of these children are coming across the border not with their biological parents but with human traffickers,” says Barr, “because they know of our broken immigration policy that they will be released into the interior of the United States if they come with children.”
The congressman also blames the border crisis on House Democrats who he says delayed a vote on additional funding for more immigration agents, humanitarian aid, and border security. (The House approved a $4.6 billion supplemental funding package in late June.)
Barr says an effective immigration policy must be rooted in upholding immigration laws.
“That’s not incompatible with being a welcoming country in terms of welcoming immigrants or refugees,” the congressman says. “In fact I think it’s very compatible that we encourage immigration the right way, the legal way, as opposed to allowing people to violate the law.”
Addressing the Addiction Epidemic
Lax border security is also contributing to the drug addiction crisis in this country, according to Barr. He says since 2012, some 4 million pounds of illicit drugs such as heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl have been confiscated at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. But he says that between those entry points, agents have seized 11 million pounds of drugs.
“According to the director [of the Office of National Drug Control Policy], we’re probably only interdicting about 5 to 15 percent of all of the illicit drugs that are coming across our southern border,” says Barr.
The congressman says tackling the drug crisis will take the cooperation of government, the criminal justice system, employers, community organizations, and others. He says the current “gold standard” for treating an opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which combines counseling and behavioral therapy with carefully administered drugs that block the euphoric effects of opioids and reduce cravings.
But not all treatment centers use MAT to help break the cycle of addiction. Barr says that puts those facilities at a disadvantage when it comes to funding.
“There’s a lot of our nonprofit groups and faith-based organizations that are not eligible for federal grants because they don’t participate in medication-assisted treatment – they don’t want narcotics to treat a narcotic addiction,” says the congressman. “Everyone’s recovery journey is different and so… I also want to give other organizations who treat other individuals with different recovery pathways opportunities to access federal support as well.”
Barr also wants to help people in recovery from a substance use disorder, particularly those who may also have a criminal record, get more opportunities for a better life. The congressman worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on a 2018 bill called the CAREER Act, which would provide grant money to five states to pilot programs to help individuals in recovery with transitional housing, job training, and second-chance employment opportunities.
The congressman sees the CAREER Act as one way to help address the nation’s workforce needs.
“Because the labor market is so healthy right now, you have 1.6 million more job openings in America than unemployed Americans,” he says. “We still need to draw from that labor pool that’s disengaged.”
Barr is chair of a Republican Study Committee called the American Worker Task Force, which is exploring ways to address the nation’s labor shortage. He says the group wants to see how apprenticeships as well as career and technical training can alleviate the skills gaps among workers and potential workers. The group is also reviewing the role entitlement programs play in workforce issues.
“How do we restructure our social safety net so as not to discourage work but encourage work, because we believe that work is not a punishment,” says Barr. “Work is a blessing and for able-bodied, capable adults we want to encourage work so that they can achieve their God-given potential.”
Another idea Barr wants to consider is expanding the federal Pell Grant program to provide tuition support to people who want to pursue an associate’s degree or a certification that qualifies the person to fill an in-demand job.