Need Action, Not More Words, on Trade Agreements, Republican Leader Tells Obama

September 9, 2011 - 3:41 AM

Obama jobs speech

President Obama greets guests after he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – Delays in passing three free-trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration are putting 380,000 American jobs at risk, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says in a new ad campaign launched Thursday, hours before President Obama called – yet again – for movement on the trade deals.

Hours before Obama’s Capitol Hill jobs-focused speech, Republican lawmakers criticized the president for repeatedly urging lawmakers to approve the free-trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia and Panama – but not submitting them to Congress in order for that to happen.

In his speech, Obama stressed the importance of getting the deals passed, as he did in his State of the Union addresses in both 2010 and 2011.

“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,” he said.

“If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers,” Obama continued. “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.”

In a statement issued after the joint session of Congress, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed frustration.

“I am glad to hear the President express support for the pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard from him before,” she said. “What we need is action, not more words, and I heard no pledge for action.”

“For more than two years, Republicans have been waiting for the President to send these job-creating free trade agreements to Congress.  But the administration has offered nothing but rhetoric, delays, and constantly moving goalposts,” she said.

“We have heard enough speeches. It’s time for the President to finally send the agreements to Congress, where Republicans will be their strongest supporters.”

The administration’s delays in sending the FTAs to Congress have been linked to two other measures – the 35 year-old Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program that enables developing countries to export almost 5,000 products to the U.S. without paying duties; and the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program that is designed to retrain U.S. workers whose jobs have been lost as a result of foreign competition.

Adding to pressure on the administration to speed up the FTA process, the GOP-controlled House on Wednesday night passed a bill renewing the GSP, which had expired last December. It will now move to the Senate, where it is expected to be combined with the TAA and the joint measure then sent back to the House for a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a press conference Wednesday that the Senate would not take up the FTAs until the House has passed the TAA.

‘Trade means jobs’

The Bush administration signed an FTA with Colombia on November 22, 2006, with Panama on June 28, 2007, and with South Korea on June 30, 2007.

The South Korean deal was hailed by U.S. trade negotiators at the time as “the most commercially significant” FTA the U.S. had concluded in nearly two decades – the biggest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

U.S. labor unions oppose the deals, arguing that they lead to the “offshoring” of U.S. jobs and reward countries that have poor labor standards.

Proponents like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), meanwhile, argue that delays in approving the three agreements have already cost American workers more than $12 billion in wages and benefits.

While the three FTAs have been held up, other countries have not been idle. A South Korea-European Union FTA went into effect on July 1, as did a deal between Canada and Colombia on August 15.

One graphic example of how the delays have affected the U.S. can be seen in the corn market, according to the U.S. Grains Council.

Until 2009, it says, Colombia was the sixth-largest U.S. corn market. That year, however, Colombia’s FTA with the four-nation Mercosur bloc reduced tariffs on Argentina and Brazil to 6.9 percent, and that level will steadily decline to zero in 2018. (Mercosur comprises Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – a combined market of some 230 million people.)

U.S. corn, meanwhile, has a 15 percent tariff, and U.S. exports to Colombia have declined since 2009, the Grains Council says.

Citing an article by Latin American news agency MercoPress, the council noted in a Sept. 2 briefing that “the United States’ market share has fallen from over 95 percent in 2007 to presently less than 20 percent. This has occurred because the U.S. government seems unable to ratify the Colombian Free Trade Agreement.”

In its Beltway ad campaign launched Thursday, the Chamber of Commerce asks, “What is the price for American workers if we defer the trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama while others move ahead? A study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that more than 380,000 American jobs are at risk. Trade means jobs. And today, more than ever, American workers need trade.”