Free Trade Agreement Trio, If Colombia Meets Benchmarks

Administration updates Congress on Colombia's progress on labor violations.

April 22, 2011, 12:43 PM

April 22, 2011 -- A trio of long-delayed trade agreements hinge on whether Colombia shows progress in implementing labor-rights benchmarks. Colombia is due to report to the Obama administration today.

The Obama Administration has been pushing to open trade with Colombia, Panama and South Korea since appointing Ron Kirk as the principal trade advisor last June in the US Trade Representatives. The Colombia trade agreement would eliminate tariffs and other barriers to U.S. exports, which totaled $12 billion last year. It will also provide US companies access to Colombia's $134 billion services market, which would open job opportunities for US service providers.

"Colombia is one of our strongest allies in South America, and increased trade between our two nations will bolster the economic partnership. Expanding markets for American goods and services will help create jobs in the U.S. and strengthen our economy," said House Speaker John Boehner. "That's why it's important for the administration to work with Congress to implement all three pending trade agreements – Colombia, Panama, and South Korea – in tandem with one another as soon as possible."

Prior to Congressional approval, Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, must assign 95 additional full-time police investigators to support prosecutors in charge of investigating criminal cases involving labor union members and activists. Colombia has also committed to launching a public outreach campaign to promote awareness of illegality of undermining rights to organize and bargain collectively.

"The legislation may pass if Colombia meets the benchmark set in place by labor agreements earlier this month, but Colombia should not be rewarded with the agreement. They have killed 2,800 [people] since 1986, 51 last year, and three teachers this year," said Robert Scott from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

The administration and Congressional supporters hope to fast-track the agreements, giving it 90 days to go through Congress. The fast-track requirement allows the President to negotiate agreements with Congress prior to the 90-day clock, but they cannot add amendments or filibusters once it has been submitted to Congress.

Kirk has made it clear that once Colombia has made the labor law changes it has promised by June 15, Congress would be in a position to hold a vote on the agreement provided all the informal processes outlined under the fast-track law have taken place. While opening trade has been on the president's agenda since the campaign, strong opposition from within his own party prevented the free-trade agreements from making any progress while the Democrats controlled the House.

"If we meet the June 15 benchmark, that would certainly pave the way for us to have a vote -- whether that's by July or whatever, there are just too many other moving parts in Congress," Kirk said at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Washington think tank Third Way.

Talks with the three countries have been in the works since before 2008, but the difference is this week Colombia is displaying progress, preparing for the free trade agreement. All three countries are moving forward: a deal with South Korea was announced in December, Panama this week, and today Colombia's progress submission. Obama may be put in a tight spot as the 2012 campaign revs up as many of his supporters are strong advocates for organized labor and human rights. These groups are generally opposed to the trade agreements.

Representative Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has stated that the House is unwilling to consider any trade agreement unless Congress considers Colombia, Panama, and South Korea at the same time.

"U.S. job creators and workers are every day put at a disadvantage to foreign competitors from countries that have already concluded trade agreements without us. The more we delay, the more we lose. The time to act is now," Camp, R-Michigan, said Monday.

In his State of the Union President Obama urged Congress to act swiftly to pass the South Korean trade agreement, saying it would "support at least 70,000 American jobs" and has "unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans."

President Obama went on to mention support for agreements with Panama and Colombia.

"I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs. That's what we did with Korea, and that's what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks."

Obama's trade initiatives unveiled in January 2010 are intended to support 2 million jobs by the end of 2014, while trade agreements with South Korea will allow greater access to their $580 billion services market. Agreements with Panama and Colombia will allow US access to the countries' $20.6 billion and $134 billion services market respectively, "supporting thousands of additional American jobs," according to the Office of US Trade Representatives.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, said failure to ratify free-trade accords with key allies Panama and Colombia would further cede market share to countries including China, costing U.S. jobs.

"The U.S. is losing "large-scale" investment projects in Panama such as the $5.25 billion canal expansion and the $1.5 billion Panama City Metro "to non-American firms," Lugar said in a February 8 statement.

The Panama Trade Promotion Agreement would guarantee access to Panama's $20.6 billion services market and removes barriers to U.S. goods entering Panama's markets.

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