Pressure Mounts for Three Free Trade Agreements to be Submitted

Bi-partisan pressure mounts for the Obama administration to move on long-pending free trade agreements (FTAs). At Senate Finance Committee hearings yesterday on the trade agenda, both Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) gave the Obama administration a hard time on not moving on pending trade pacts as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk testified before the full committee.

Sen. Hatch took a particularly tough line in his questioning. He noted that while the Obama administration is prepared to submit the U.S.-Korea FTA, he questioned why it has dragged its feet on setting any definite timetable for considering the pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Both trade pacts have been negotiated and re-negotiated for several years now, and yet the administration still claims there are still some outstanding issues that need to be resolved, mainly relating to labor unions.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) also expressed concern about the pace with which these agreements are being submitted to Congress. According to USTR Kirk, the U.S.-Korea FTA is ready for technical drafting and submission to Congress, but the Colombia and Panama FTAs don’t have clear timetables for congressional consideration. Sen. Thune asked what further changes the president wants in the agreements and questioned whether U.S. credibility about future agreements will be hurt if more revisions are required after the FTAs have been negotiated and signed.  He said, “A deal with the U.S. ought to be a deal.”

In response, Kirk said that “a vast majority of people in the U.S. don’t believe in the wisdom of our trade policy” and we have to “keep faith with American workers.” He noted that the Korea trade pact is ready, and Congress should move on that, while the other two agreements are moving forward and should be ready this year.

In his questions and comments, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) was particularly blunt.  He noted that Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva was in the hearing room, and “I’m embarrassed,” Roberts said, that after five years of negotiations and agreement, “we’re going to do it for Korea but not Panama and Colombia.” He said, “If I were in Colombia’s shoes and the US would try to link trade policy to labor and environmental issues, I would find another trade partner.”

Policymakers are increasingly concerned that if only the U.S.-Korea FTA is submitted, the other pending agreements may languish. They would like all three to be submitted at the same time. Yet USTR Kirk has said that issues with both Panama and Colombia need to be resolved before the pacts are submitted. With Colombia, those issues relate to labor unions’ charges that Colombia has not done enough to adhere to international labor standards, has not dealt forcefully enough on violence against union members, and has not done enough to prosecute those charged with such acts. However, research has shown that during the past eight years, the administrations of former President Uribe and current President Santos have taken strong steps that have steadily reduced violence against union members and have stepped up prosecutions.