Key Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate jointly scolded the top Obama administration trade official Wednesday for not moving faster to get approval of some long-stalled trade agreements. Trade supporters want deals sent to Congress right away for approval, while skeptics say the trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama have problems and need more work.
The Bush administration signed the free trade deals several years ago, but they have not yet gotten the congressional approval they need to go into force.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the influential Senate Finance Committee, Wednesday accused the Obama administration of "foot dragging" in getting approval of deals that could boost U.S. exports by billions of dollars and create thousands of jobs.
"While we wait, other countries are writing the rules of trade," said Senator Hatch. "While we hesitate, other countries are opening up markets for their workers. And if this sorry record is not corrected, U.S. workers will continue to lose out on the opportunities afforded by free and open trade."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, said that while the administration delays, competitors are moving aggressively and successfully to replace U.S. goods in markets like Colombia.
"We are losing market share hand over fist [very quickly]," said Senator Baucus. "Hand over fist we are losing market share."
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the Senate committee that the administration is ready to work with Congress to write the detailed laws needed to implement a free trade agreement with South Korea.
The South Korean trade deal was re-negotiated late last year to resolve complaints that it did too little to give U.S. automakers access to the Korean market. Critics from U.S. farm states say it still does not fully open the Korean market for U.S. beef exports, which they complain are being slowed by outdated and unscientific worries about food safety.
Many members of Congress want all three trade deals sent to them quickly for approval, and some say they will not pass if that does not happen.
But Kirk said haste will make controversial trade issues even more difficult in the United States. Most economists say breaking down trade barriers helps economies, but Kirk told the hearing many Americans think trade deals have destroyed U.S. jobs and hurt the economy.
"An overwhelming majority of Americans do not believe in the wisdom of our trade policy," said Kirk. "You have more Americans than not, by a huge margin, that believe that we have made a trade-off, frankly, of jobs for cheaper clothes and food, and they do not believe in that. So what we have resolved to do is not just come up with a way forward, which we have on Korea and Panama and Colombia, but do so in a way that we begin to restore the faith of the American public."
Critics say the deal with Colombia does too little to protect labor union members from violence, and should not be approved until labor rights improve. Kirk said the Obama administration is working to resolve problems with the Panama deal and has made significant progress on the agreement with Colombia.