The U.S. Congress has approved free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama - the first such accords passed during Barack Obama’s presidency. Backers say the trade deals will boost U.S. exports by $13 billion a year, while opponents say they will undercut U.S. workers and undermine America’s ability to press for international human rights.
During a full day of debate in both houses of Congress, there was one word on legislators’ minds: jobs.
One day after the Senate rejected President Obama’s jobs bill, backers of free trade portrayed the three pacts as a means to boost America’s stalling economy and stimulate job creation through expanded international commerce. Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana said, “They will boost our gross domestic product by more than $15 billion, and they will support tens of thousands of urgently-needed American jobs. They will help the jobs picture. Clearly not solve it, but help.”
That view was echoed by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. “This is a no-brainer. Export more, make our products more competitive by lowering the tariffs, and create jobs in America," she said. "What could be more clear?"
Negotiated under former-President George W. Bush, the accords had been shelved by the Obama administration until Congress extended assistance programs for U.S. workers affected by foreign competition. Additionally, Mr. Obama pressed South Korea to open its market to U.S. vehicles, urged Panama to strengthen financial regulations, and sought assurances that Colombia will protect labor leaders and union members, scores of whom have been murdered in recent years.
Delays in approving the accords frustrated Republicans like Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who complained that America’s competitors were gaining global market share as a result of U.S. trade inaction. Grassley’s impatience was still evident as Congress prepared to vote. “Well, can you believe it? We are finally here," he said.
In a rare show of legislative bipartisanship, the free trade pacts got near-unanimous Republican backing and enough Democratic support to assure easy passage in both houses. Opposing Democrats portrayed the accords as an extension of a free trade agenda that has brought a sharp decline in U.S. manufacturing and sent high-wage American jobs overseas.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont: “One of the major reasons why the middle class in America is disappearing, poverty is increasing, and the gap between the very wealthy and everybody else is growing wider is directly related to our disastrous free trade policy. Over the last decade, more than 50,000 manufacturing plants in this country have shut down," he said. "Over 5.5 million factory jobs have disappeared. I do not understand why, when you have a policy that has failed and failed and failed, why you want to continue that policy?”
Several other Democrats representing heavily-industrialized states also opposed the pacts, arguing that previous accords - such as the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico - failed to yield promised economic benefits and hastened American job losses.
But other legislators argued that the United States already allows most foreign goods to enter the country with minimal tariffs, and that trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama will even the playing field for U.S. exports. Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware.
“We allow these countries to sell their goods and services in our country without impediment. We do not impose, for the most part, tariff barriers or non-tariff barriers. When we want to sell our stuff there, they impose these barriers. Under a free trade agreement, the barriers that others put up to keep our goods and services out pretty much go away. We will do better [economically]," he said.
Many U.S. labor groups and human rights organizations opposed some or all of the three trade pacts. U.S. business groups enthusiastically backed the accords. Colombia's embassy in Washington hailed what it called the start of "a new era" of bilateral relations.
In a statement, President Obama described congressional passage of the trade deals as "a major win for American workers and businesses".