Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sancya
On April 7, 2008 President Bush submitted legislation to the Congress requesting implementation of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.Originally signed and agreed to by both countries in 2006, the agreement would have eliminated most tariffs and barriers to commerce between both nations.
Over the next year and a half the administration and congressional leaders met hundreds of times to iron out differences and find a “bipartisan path for considering the agreement”.
By statute, Congress has 90 legislative days to complete action on such agreements, and after that much work by all parties, one might have assumed that it’s passage was assured.
However, just days earlier, candidate Barack Obama had vowed to fight the agreement “”because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labour protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”
The deal never did get through the Congress.
Canada has already signed such an agreement which affords their farmers preferential treatment on the sale of agricultural products, and Colombia has signed a similar agreement with China. Currently, Canadian products enter Colombia duty free while American agricultural goods still pay Colombia’s steep tariffs which range between five and 20 per cent.
Despite the unnecessary barriers to American competitiveness, however, labour unions and many Democrats remain dead set on killing the agreement. They have demanded that Congress adopt a trade protection agreement for American workers displaced by the deals, and continually refer to the persecution and even murder of union leaders in Colombia.
This had been a legitimate concern, but real progress has been made in Colombia over the last fifteen years, and passage by the U.S. would likely improve things further as a result of the kind of free exchanges of commerce and ideas the agreement anticipates.
The narrative coming from the White House for the last several years blamed Congress (and therefore the Republicans) for delaying these agreements. “The only thing preventing us from passing these bills is the refusal by some in Congress to put country ahead of party,” Obama announced at a news conference this past spring.
Of course, with the continuing audacity of double-speak, the White House neglected to make clear that it was Obama himself and his allies among the Democrats and the unions that had held things up all along. At the time of the remark referenced above, the agreements had not left the President’s desk.
They were still on his desk when he delivered his much mocked “Right Now” jobs speech to a joint session of Congress on September 8th of this year.
“Now it’s time to clear the way for a series of trade agreements that would make it easier for American companies to sell their products in Panama and Colombia and South Korea — while also helping the workers whose jobs have been affected by global competition.
If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers. I want to see more products sold around the world stamped with the three proud words: “Made in America.” That’s what we need to get done.”
After close to 1,000 days in office, Obama finally sent the trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and Korea to the Congress for consideration this past Monday.
“These agreements will support tens of thousands of jobs across the country for workers making products stamped with three proud words: Made in America,” the President said in this week’s statement.
House speaker John Boehner described the agreements as a “top priority” and pledged to move quickly towards passage, noting that “while the delay was unacceptably long and likely cost jobs, I am pleased the Obama administration has finally done its part”.
Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor also pledged support, noting that the agreements are “a key component of the House Republicans’ job plan.”
Apparently, White House arm twisting finally did persuade some opponents of the trade deals to agree to go along. As an example, the United Automobile Workers agreed to support the South Korea agreement after the administration persuaded that country to agree to a more gradual elimination of tariffs on auto imports.
Other unions, however, remain adamantly opposed and continue to put pressure on Congressional Democrats.
“The last thing America needs is one more job-killing trade deal, let alone three,” Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa said in a statement this past Monday. “These proposed agreements will damage our economy, raise unemployment and further lower workers’ wages.”
It should be noted that there is another drama playing out in the legislative corridors relative to these trade agreements. Even as Obama pushes these deals, the Senate held a procedural vote which cleared by a margin of 79-19 and will advance a bill imposing tariffs on China for alleged currency manipulation. Only John Boehner seemed to recognise the full impact such a move would have.
“It’s pretty dangerous to be moving legislation through the United States Congress forcing someone to deal with the value of their currency.” He also said that “This is well beyond what Congress ought to be doing,” and suggested that the bill would never reach the House floor for a vote.
Never wanting to miss a chance to dash before the cameras, New York Senator Chuck Schumer claimed he was “aghast” at Mr. Boehner’s remarks.
“I have news, Mr. Speaker. We are already in a trade war with China,” he said. He went on to accuse the Speaker of “raising the white flag on American jobs, American wealth, American manufacturing and American competitiveness”, and suggested that Boehner’s real goal was to hurt the American economy and make Obama’s re-election even less likely.
Popular as it is to bash China, Obama should know better. He and Schumer seem to be putting Mr. Boehner in a political corner primarily to give Democrats in the Senate cover against union wrath, which still generally oppose the pending trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and Korea. The great irony is that Boehner is one of Obama’s few strong allies working to advance the agreements Obama claims to favour.
The headline for this article is “The Fierce Urgency of Three Years Later” and is an obvious take off on a phrase coined in a speech Martin Luther King delivered in 1967. Consider the full quote:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”
Leadership would have seized the moment years ago to advance these trade agreements through the Congress as a means to help all Americans, not block them to protect the vocal but ever shrinking Union constituency Obama is beholden to.
Leadership would rightfully take the Chinese to task for their currency manipulation, but speak boldly to combat protectionism and prevent a possible trade war.
The fierce urgency of now cries out for such leadership, and Dr. King and history remind us that there is such a thing as being too late.
For a detailed review of the issues and history surrounding these trade agreements, see this posting at the Cato Institute’s website. To read the details on the Colombian Trade Agreement as defined by the United States Trade Representative, see this posting.
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