V.P. Mike Pence presses Utah Democrat Ben McAdams to support trade agreement

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vice President Mike Pence waves to the crowd introduced to the crowd at Merit Medical, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

South Jordan • Vice President Mike Pence touted the strength of the U.S. economy during a visit to Utah-based Merit Medical on Thursday, pointing to stock market gains, low unemployment and manufacturing “roaring back” after years of decline.

“We didn’t need a magic wand," Pence said, “we just needed President Donald Trump in the White House.”

But the thrust of Pence’s remarks — delivered to Merit Medical employees, community guests and Utah dignitaries such as Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Ben McAdams, D-Utah, along with former Sen. Orrin Hatch — focused on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

The USMCA, intended to supersede the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has not yet been ratified by Congress, a point Pence stressed in a direct appeal to McAdams, the lone Democrat in Utah’s federal delegation.

“When you get back to Washington, D.C.,” Pence told McAdams, “tell [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi to put the USMCA on the floor.”

Pence’s visit to the Beehive State was the latest stop in a national tour aimed at shoring up support for the trade accord. Like Utah, many of the stops have included areas represented by Democrats who are perceived as moderate or who represent traditionally conservative constituencies.

In July, McAdams and 13 other Democratic members of Congress signed a letter asking Pelosi, D-Calif., to negotiate the USMCA and bring the agreement to a vote of the House by the end of the year. On Thursday, after the Pence speech, McAdams released a statement saying that trade agreements are an excellent way to promote capitalism and boost the U.S. economy.

“Mexico and Canada are two of our largest trading partners, and Utah businesses deserve certainty in their trading relationships,” McAdams said. “I’ve called on [House] leadership to bring USMCA for a vote this year, and I hope we can resolve any outstanding differences to get this agreement across the finish line.”

Romney also tweeted his support for the USMCA after Pence’s visit, saying the agreement would “greatly benefit our state’s agricultural industry.”

Merit Medical founder and CEO Fred Lampropoulos — a prominent fundraiser and donor to the Utah Republican Party and conservative campaigns — opened Thursday’s event by stressing the importance of the new trade agreement to “everybody in this room.” He said his company, which is projected to earn $1 billion in revenue this year, was built and expanded through free and fair commercial trading.

“The ability to move products freely, unencumbered in North America is what has made this company successful,” Lampropoulos said. “Without it, we wouldn’t be here today.”

A study released in April by Business Roundtable found that 1 of every 5 jobs in Utah is supported by international trade.

Merit Medical, founded in 1987, has benefited from public tax incentives, including state and Salt Lake County tax break packages totaling $56 million that were approved last year. At the time, the company had threatened to abandon a planned expansion and relocate out of the United States if its incentives weren’t approved.

Lampropoulos told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday that Merit Medical had been considering its options for siting a new research and development facility. The company opted to remain in South Jordan, and the expansion is under construction and scheduled to be completed in December, he said, followed by construction of an additional facility next year.

“These are not entry-level jobs,” he said. “These are very high-paying jobs that will be in that new facility."

Lampropoulos said he was pleased with Thursday’s event, adding that he found the vice president to be personable and “a delight to be around.”

“You felt like you were the only person in the room,” he said. “That’s just the way Mike Pence makes you feel.”

During his remarks, Pence said the Trump administration has prioritized trade — citing negotiations with South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom — and put China on notice that the “era of economic surrender is over.”

“America will no longer tolerate our trade deficits and the theft of intellectual property in our trade relationship with China,” Pence said.

He also commented on the division in Congress, joking that it is worse than the athletic rivalry between Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. The USMCA has the votes to pass in Congress, Pence said, but the administration needs the help of Utahns and other Americans to insist that a vote on ratification be held before the year’s end.

“We’ve got to get it done,” Pence said. “The clock is ticking.”

Speaking to members of the news media after Thursday’s event, Pence was asked whether the upcoming 2020 campaign cycle might make congressional Democrats unwilling to ratify the trade agreement and give the administration what might be seen as a political victory.

Pence said the economy has been harmed by NAFTA, and expressed confidence that there is bipartisan support for putting politics aside and ratifying the new trade agreement in 2019.

“The USMCA is a win for every American, every community large and small,” Pence said. “When we pass it, it will be a win for Republicans, Democrats and independents across this country.”

Democrats have opposed the new agreement because they say it gives short shrift to worker and environmental protections and gives away too much to big drug companies.

Pence downplayed the warnings of some economists that the U.S. is heading toward an economic recession, saying growth will continue if the country stays the course on Trump’s agenda of lower taxes, decreased regulation and a reliance on domestic energy sources.

Pence also predicted his and Trump’s reelection campaign would be successful in Utah, where Trump has struggled to secure the same levels of support of his Republican predecessors.

“The reason why the people of Utah are going to say ‘yes’ to reelecting this team and this president is because of the record,” Pence said. “President Trump has been working every day to keep the promises that he made to the people of Utah.”