Progress on Free Trade — With Strings Attached

Looks like there could finally be some progress on long-pending free trade agreements (FTAs). Yesterday U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that the administration will ask Congress to consider the three trade agreements that have been languishing for several years. In an announcement, Kirk said the administration will begin technical discussions today with key Congressional staff on draft legislation to implement the three pending trade pacts — with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Under trade laws, the president has to submit implementing legislation to Congress for their approval.

While some unions have been opposing all agreements, the Colombia FTA has been the main focus of U.S. trade unions’ opposition on grounds that the government hasn’t done enough to curb violence against union leaders, despite that country’s strong progress in addressing overall violence and corruption and providing protection for union leaders.

Kirk also announced that he had sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees “indicating that Colombia has taken the necessary steps, consistent with the April 22 milestones outlined in the Action Plan, to move to the next stage in the process.” That Action Plan includes stringent labor requirements that some have called interference in Colombia’s domestic labor market and a blow to that country’s sovereignty. (See CEI’s post on this issue.) Kirk’s letter said, however, that Colombia still had to meet other objectives in that plan before the President sends the trade agreement to Congress.

At the same time, the administration will also be preparing a beefed-up Trade Adjustment Assistance bill to give workers whose jobs were affected by trade training and other special assistance programs. That may not placate some long-time opponents of the Colombia trade agreement — who cater to the unions — such as House Democrats Sander Levin and Jim McDermott.