US-Colombia FTA Looks Set; Korea, Panama Await

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/06/2011 09:54:00 AM
It was written in the stars above that Obama the candidate would bash trade and discuss "renegotiating NAFTA" to court union support crucial to Democratic get-out-the vote efforts. Obama the (jobless economy) president however has become quite anxious as of late to sign trade deals to hopefully generate some US jobs out of no small amount of desperation.

In case you missed it, the Obama administration is busying itself with completing the leftover trade deals from the Bush Minor administration. Unable to get the Colombia, Korea & Panama deals done during the time when the last president still had fast-track authority, they've been stuck in limbo for years--though you wouldn't guess it by how much hype the USTR is now heaping on them. While the US Trade Representative Ron Kirk (remember him?) likes to say these FTAs will help achieve Obama's stated goal of doubling exports in five years, these are collectively not quite enough. Certainly KORUSFTA is nothing to sneeze at, but in the overall scheme of things it probably won't matter a great deal.

Nevertheless, in line with a major push by various government agencies to assist exporters big and small, we too have this rush to get trade deals done. First out of the chute is the one with Colombia. While (more protectionist) Democrats from states that perceive themselves as vulnerable to cheaper Colombian labour have long complained about the Latin American countries' anti-labour practices, I'd take it with a grain of salt:
The Senate Committee on Ways and Means has approved the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement with 24 votes in favor and 12 votes against. Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp said "These agreements enjoy broad bipartisan, bicameral support and are the product of a lot of hard work from all sides. I would also like to extend my appreciation to the president for sending these trade agreements to Congress." The free trade agreement will now go to the Senate Committee on Finance, and the full House before finally being sent to the Oval Office.

However assurances over labor rights which President Obama won from Colombia in the Labor Action Plan in April are not in the bill. "There remain troubling problems with how Colombia is addressing key elements related to the Action Plan. The flaws are magnified by the failure to incorporate the Action Plan in the implementation bill as a result of the adamant refusal of Republicans, and the Obama administration’s acquiescence to that refusal.” said Sander Levin Democratic Representative for Michigan.
The aforementioned Democrats have also been keen on extending Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) which is supposed to provide Americans who have lost (or will lose) their jobs due to trade liberalization with unemployment and retraining benefits. It was nixed during earlier budget quarrels since it was a $1B line item, but it has since been reinstated in a putatively more affordable guise as quid pro quo for passing these three deals:
The deals next ran aground when Congress, engaged in a broader fight over government spending, failed to renew TAA, a five-decade-old program that extends unemployment and health-care benefits to workers idled by foreign competition, if they seek job training. Republicans argued that the program, which costs about $1 billion annually, was too expensive and re-employment success couldn't be proven. [Democrats were reluctant to pass any FTAs without TAA extension.]

[Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max] Baucus [D-Montana] and [House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave] Camp [R-Michigan] together agreed on cuts to TAA benefits, reducing its cost. But bickering over the process for passing the scaled-back TAA program through both chambers caused further delays. Under a deal discussed last week, the new TAA program, which was approved by the Senate last month, would be passed by the House at the same time as the trade pacts, or shortly thereafter. The trade legislation would then proceed to the Senate.
With regard to the Panama deal, unionists have been wary of its status as a tax haven, though Panama has been willing to water down this status.
The Panama pact moved forward after that country enacted changes in law aimed at ending its status as an offshore tax haven, which has delayed the pact for several years.
Needless to say, there is an industry-led full-court press on the passage of these three FTAs. With what passes for bipartisan support circa 2011, I do believe that will go through this time around. Still, you do get the impression that they're too little, too late.

UPDATE (13 October): All three FTAs are now done deals.