Former Congressmen mixed about foreign policy in Trump era

Three local former Congressmen said at a DreamWeek panel discussion that President-elect Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy will be definitely different than that of his two predecessors. But those Congressmen are unsure whether Trump’s approach will help improve the United States’ diplomatic and trade standing around the world.

Former U.S. Reps. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas District 20), Henry Bonilla (R-Texas District 23) and Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R-Texas District 23) were part of an event that the World Affairs Council of San Antonio held Jan. 10 at Sunset Station.

Gonzalez served District 20 from 1993 to 2013. Bonilla served District 23 from 1993 to 2007. Canseco served one term in District 23, from 2011 to 2013.

Each recalled his time in Congress, concluding that the U.S. government’s approach to foreign policy has devolved from a bipartisan to highly partisan over the last 20 to 25 years.

Gonzalez said one of the most significant votes he was proud to cast, during his time in office, was one against the 2002 House resolution authorizing military force against Iraq.

View a photo gallery from the event below.

World Affairs Council DWSA (Jan. 10, 2017)


Gonzalez said, back then, post-Sept. 11 politics proved divisive, but not as toxic as Congress appears to be now. As a whole, Gonzalez said the Constitution states a need for questioning and honest debate between the legislative and executive branches, especially on decisions that may have a global impact.

“Congress of the United States must assume its rightful responsibility, pursuant to the Constitution (to ensure foreign policy matters are addressed),” he added.

Bonilla said even during his tenure, which including the Clinton presidential administration, political partisanship in Washington, D.C., was not harsh as it is currently portrayed.

“It was bipartisan,” he added. Bonilla, like Gonzalez, were in Congress when then-President Clinton rallied Democrats join Republicans in backing passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That was a challenge, Gonzalez noted, because many Democrats had been typically anti-free trade.

Bonilla said, over the 20-plus years since NAFTA went into effect, more Republicans have joined the anti-trade crusade. This culminated, in part, in the election of Trump, he added, as many Democrats and Republicans rail against the newer Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Trump has blamed NAFTA, mostly, for the loss of American jobs over the years, although government agencies and business observers note that automation has particularly hit Rust Belt industries the hardest.

“Trump wants to do a re-write (of NAFTA), and it’s been reported that Mexico is open to a review,” Bonilla said.

Bonilla admitted that there’s a public perception NAFTA sent many American jobs to Mexico.

“That’s a visceral belief. It’s hard to get that past anyone,” he added. “People believe they have been hurt by trade agreements.”

Bonilla added that it’s vital the United States and Mexico maintain a good working relationship because that can affects an array of issues, such as immigration and trade.

Gonzalez and one audience member expressed concern about Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric, which took a turn recently when he insisted that Mexico pay fund construction of a massive border wall.

“I think (Trump is) doing a dangerous thing with Mexico,” Gonzalez said. “The question comes down to the point that things in Mexico are so aggravated by a Tweet from Trump.”

“Hopefully, we can go forward because they are our neighbors. We’re joined at the hips,” said Bonilla. Gonzalez said most job losses could not be attributed to NAFTA.

“But you will find a lot of blame on automation and the cost of labor. Businesses find ways to get cheaper labor,” he added.

Canseco, who served during President Obama’s first term, said maintaining a strong trade stance is crucial to ensuring America’s economic opportunities worldwide.

“Trade is a building block of America,” Canseco said, adding that NAFTA has created jobs and benefited the United States more than it has supposedly hurt it, as some critics feel.

Canseco partially agreed with Gonzalez that NAFTA has contributed to the perception of U.S. job losses. But realistically, he added, the costs of labor have risen because of business regulations implemented by the Obama administration.

“NAFTA, as a general concept, is great but it does have its defects and it has detractors,” Canseco said.

Canseco also blamed Mexico for failing to get its business and trade-related taxes in line with those of the United States and Canada.

“There’s room on all sides for improvement,” he added.

As for Trump’s rhetoric, Canseco said: “I don’t think he’s anti-Mexican. I think, in an impolite way, he’s pointed out some things.”

Canseco also said a strong U.S. trade stance could help to reduce strained relations between this country and Russia.

Calling Russia’s economy “a shambles,” Canseco said Russian President Vlad Putin enjoys posturing while trying to rebuild the country in the image of the old Soviet Union.

“This is where trade is important. It’s to encourage them to do global trade,” he added. “What (Russia is) doing is shouting loudly to get people to act and react.”

All panelists agreed that sentiment on foreign policy and trade will change over time, regardless of the political party in power.

The panelists also agreed there must be a return to a sense of decorum in Congress and between the legislative and executive branches.

“No matter my feelings on politics, there’s always going to be someone on the other side of the aisle who believes legitimately, differently, and we have to respect that,” Canseco said.

Bonilla said bipartisanship “gives you strength to accomplish when you have everyone on the same team.”

Gonzalez lamented a time, now seemingly lost, from past years of politics in Washington, D.C.

“You had regular order (in Congress). You had an amendment. You had to be recognized,” he added.

Cover Image: Former U.S. Reps Charlie Gonzalez, Francisco "Quico" Canseco and Henry Bonilla were part of an event that the World Affairs Council of San Antonio held Jan. 10 at Sunset Station. Photo by B. Kay Richter.