In his jobs speech to Congress, President Obama asked members to "clear the way" for consideration of the long-stalled 3 free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Today, the way is expected to become clearer as the Senate starts formal consideration of extension of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program and prepares to add renewal and extension of the Labor Department's Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program and send the legislation back to the House. Obama and many Senate Democrats support the 3 agreements but have demanded that Congress first act on TAA, a program that is intended to provide aid and support to U.S. workers who have lost their jobs due to international competition. Many Republicans have called for reform of the TAA program but are supporting action on TAA in order get these job-supporting trade agreements done. For the next couple of days prior to a short recess next week, the Senate will consider amendments to the GSP/TAA bill — some that would be quite damaging to the broader process — including potentially from Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has declared that if the procedural hurdles are cleared on schedule (including the President sending the implementing legislation to Capitol Hill) in early October he will vote against all 3 of the agreements. Some elements of the labor community are expected to work especially hard to try to block implementation of the U.S.-Colombia agreement based on historical and ongoing violence in the fast-growing Latin American country, which is the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking nation, not on the economic merits of the deal for U.S. workers.
Colombia has made huge strides since the 1980s in large part to the investment of the U.S. government. The work to bring peace to the country is not 100 percent finished, but all parties should acknowledge that defeating a U.S.-Colombia trade agreement is not going to help save lives, no more than approval and implementation of the agreement would solve all domestic problems.
The FTA would level the playing field between Colombian exporters, who already enjoy duty-free market access here due to U.S. preference programs, and U.S. exporters, who now face tariffs of 5-20 percent. However, on August 15 Colombia opened its market to Canada through an FTA. No data is available yet, but the longer Congress and the Obama Administration may mean lost opportunities for U.S. exporters.
U.S. exporters sent approximately $330 million in electroindustry equipment to Colombia in 2010 and thorough July of this year shipments were up 19 percent. How much does your state export? Check out this website.
Manufacturers would be well served to remind their federal legislators of their support for the agreements now and over the next few weeks. The easiest way is use NEMA's Write to Congress tool. We will keep you posted. And look for another blog entry soon focused on the U.S.-South Korea FTA.