People often ask me why I am so focused on improving U.S. trade policy. Those people, however, aren’t from Maine, where we know firsthand that our current approach to trade hasn’t helped our state.

Don’t get me wrong, trade has been and will continue to be a pillar of American ideals and commerce, and I strongly support it. What I don’t support is blindly pursuing the same approach to trade that our country has pursued for decades without analyzing how it has affected American jobs and without revising it to ensure it protects American companies and workers alike.

There are clearly winners and losers of free trade. U.S. manufacturing, including paper production, has declined since the implementation of NAFTA and the subsequent rash of free trade agreements that have been signed. And I simply do not buy the argument of some that the U.S. can shift to a service-based economy exclusively.

This argument suggests the very profession that sustained my family, my hometown, and much of the state of Maine will be a foregone casualty of trade agreements, with the assurance that new professions in technology or consulting will take its place.

This simply isn’t true, and entire regions of Maine and other states across the country continue to suffer from this misguided philosophy. Who are we if we don’t make anything anymore? How can we ensure our infrastructure is safe and our national security is protected if we no longer manufacture things in the United States?

Our country needs a forward-looking manufacturing policy so we can maintain our competitive advantage. And there should still be national pride in working in a paper mill or an automobile assembly plant or a domestic shoe factory. Just as we unite around the ideal of the American farmer, so too should we unite behind the prosperity of the blue-collar worker who makes a living, as I did, at the local mill or factory. Support for these Americans and their jobs is more important now — in the wake of the economic downturn — than ever.

That’s why it’s time for Congress to have the important, honest conversation about how we can make our trade policy better. Instead of harping about who is for or against free trade, let’s move beyond the entrenched arguments of convenience that one is either for or against free trade.

Mainers are doing the same thing right in our backyard. The May 6 public hearing held by the Maine Citizens Trade Policy Commission in South Paris is a good example of how productive dialogue can help to identify local impacts of trade and ensure that the community-level realities are part of the national conversation about U.S. trade policy.

I’ve attempted to enhance this discussion and ignite a true national trade dialogue with the introduction of a bill called the TRADE Act. The bill seeks to achieve two primary goals: to evaluate our existing trade policy and adjust it according to this analysis; and to incorporate new provisions into future trade agreements to provide additional protections to American workers.

The first U.S. free trade agreement was completed with Israel in 1985. Since then, we have entered into free trade agreements with 16 other countries, and three additional pacts are pending congressional approval. Despite this expansion of trade treaties, there has been no comprehensive review of U.S. trade policy in the last 25 years.

Given the dramatic changes seen in the U.S. economy over the last few decades — and particularly in the last few years during the recession — it simply makes sense to look at our nation’s trade policy to determine how we can make it better. That is why the TRADE Act not only seeks to improve existing trade agreements, but does so in a way that increases congressional involvement — giving the American people and domestic workers and businesses a stronger voice in the process.

Whether it’s currency manipulation, dumping of subsidized foreign products on our markets, or foreign companies exploiting loopholes in intentional trade law, we need to get serious about trade reform and enforcement. At the end of the day, all companies and workers here in the U.S. want is a level international playing field so they can compete fairly.

Our nation simply cannot recover and rebuild to the fullest extent possible when our own trade laws are working against us. It’s long past time that we moved forward with smart trade policies that will benefit the U.S. economy.

Rep. Mike Michaud, a resident of East Millinocket, represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and the Committee on Small Business.