Colombia trade agreement — Democratic leaders ignore consequences of defeat

As I noted yesterday, the Bush Administration on April 7 sent to Congress a transmittal letter and implementing legislation for the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) to Congress.  Congress will then have 90 days to consider the legislation.

But prospects for its passage are uncertain, given the anti-trade, anti-globalization sentiment among Democratic policymakers, spurred on by union campaigns against free trade.  Leading Democrats have singled out this agreement for fierce opposition charging that violence against union leaders in Colombia is condoned by the Colombian government.  In this election year, Democratic presidential candidates in their bitter primary battles have focused on trade as the cause of all economic ills in industrial states and have ignored more valid reasons, such as technology and increased productivity.  Previous trade agreements, especially the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, have been the rallying points for a call to pause before committing to future trade agreements and to undo some past ones.

Hostility to the Colombia TPA is a paradox for a host of reasons — economic and national security issues, credibility and trust with other trading partners, leadership in the world trading system, economic opportunity for Colombians, and, ultimately, fairness.

As soon as the President signed the transmittal letter, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) issued a press statement saying they would not support the agreement and charging that the Administration had bypassed protocol by not consulting with Congress.

 The April 7 statement said:

President Bush’s statement today regarding his unprecedented decision to send a free trade agreement to Congress without following established protocols of Congressional consultation is counter-productive, jeopardizing prospects for its passage.  Under present circumstances, we cannot support the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Contrary to that assertion, throughout the process of negotiating the trade agreement, Congressional leaders have been closely involved.  And, in fact, last May, even after the Colombia FTA was signed, Democratic leaders flexing their muscles insisted on a new “trade deal” with the Administration, through which pending and future trade agreements would have to include stringent and enforceable labor and environmental provisions.  

Those provisions devised by Democratic leaders were duly incorporated into the U.S.-Colombia trade pact, even though to re-negotiate a signed agreement was a slap in the face to Colombian President Uribe.  With those changes, one would think that the Democrats — now that they got what the unions wanted — would have supported the trade agreement.

But no, political considerations intervened in the form of the 2008 election year, fierce primary contests, and a strong union drive to defeat the trade agreement and to support anti-trade policymakers.

What is most disappointing is that Rep. Charles Rangel is part of the attack on the trade agreement.  The powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means had earlier said he’s not supporting the Colombia agreement, yet he has been an eloquent and active opponent of trade sanctions on Cuba now that Fidel Castro has turned over the reins of government to his brother Raoul.

As Rep. Rangel noted at that time:

With fresh eyes, we can look anew at our neighbor 90 miles south as a place where regular Americans enjoy enormous popularity and the ability to influence events towards a more open and democratic society. Our embargo has failed, and so we can test the effectiveness of active contacts between our people in bringing about positive results.

Rep. Rangel’s further words on Cuba and how the U.S. has weakened its credibility “in the hemisphere” relate even more so to Colombia:

Our standing in the world has taken a critical blow, thanks to our stubborn inability to amend failed policy. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has exploited our position to weaken our credibility among other countries in the hemisphere. We have shunned our allies in the Caribbean, like the great Michael Manley of Jamaica, simply because he was friendly with Cuba. We allow China to increase its influence in the world and exploit oil discovered on the island nation’s shores. We will likely one day need these countries — including Cuba — to be on our side, but a policy and politics of obstinate silence cuts against that interest.

Policymakers concerned about national security, hemispheric cooperation, and building closer ties with U.S. allies seem to be turning a blind eye to the potential repercussions of a defeat of the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement.  They indeed are showing, in Rep. Rangel’s words, “a stubborn inability to amend failed policy.” If the trade agreement goes down in flames, expect Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to gloat as he expands his leadership and influence in the Andean region and elsewhere in Latin America.