Is Trade Adjustment Assistance a Pre-Condition for Pending Trade Agreements?

Today, at the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the committee chairman, ranking Republican, and the U.S. Trade Representative’s witness all endorsed the importance of this trade pact, but emphasized a non-trade related issue — trade unions and worker rights in Colombia and the Labor Action Plan that Colombia agreed to as a condition for the FTA to be considered by Congress. Several committee members also said that reauthorization of Trade Adjustment Assistance — that provides subsidies for U.S. workers who ostensibly lose their jobs because of trade — must go hand in hand with consideration of the pending FTAs — with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.

Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont), the committee’s chairman, in opening the hearing, noted that Colombia is a friend, ally, and partner, both economically and geopolitically. Despite this support for the FTA and trade, however, he did praise the Action Plan that tells Colombia just what that country has to do with respect to its workers. As Baucus said: “The FTA commits both parties to protect fundamental labor rights. This commitment is fully enforceable, just like the commercial provisions in the agreement. And this commitment is far stronger than those in Colombia’s FTAs with other countries, including Canada and the European Union.”

Ranking Member Senator Orrin Hatch made a forceful statement in support of the FTA and tried to pin down Miriam Sapiro, Deputy United States Trade Representative, about the Administration’s commitment to submit the agreement this summer. He pressed the witness on whether the vote on the Colombia FTA is contingent on an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance. “Is it a pre-condition?” to considering the trade pact, he asked. Although he got no direct answer to his query, the tenor of the responses seemed to indicate that it is.

In his questioning of witnesses, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) said that he had previously opposed the FTA with Colombia on the same grounds as the AFL-CIO witness, who said that the Labor Action Plan does not go far enough.  But, Kerry said, it is time to ratify the treaty — “This is the moment,” he said.

Sen. Baucus emphasized that TAA must move in conjunction with the FTA — “the two must go together,” he reiterated.  However, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) pointed out that the “goal posts keep moving” in terms of when the pending FTAs will be considered.  He noted the irony that four years and one day ago, the Bush Administration reached an agreement with the Democratic Congress that was supposed to allow the Colombia trade pact to move ahead.

From the way much of the hearing went, it sounds like Colombia still has to prove that it is living up to U.S.-imposed mandates for labor rights. It also sounds like TAA is going to have to move concurrently with the FTAs if they are going to get past the pro-union blockage.