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The blame game: Whose fault is it that trade pacts linger in limbo?

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The president has, on several occasions, publicly chastised Congress for doing nothing on free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and Korea, and Congress lobs the ball back in his court, saying he won’t send the agreements to Capitol Hill for a vote.

 

An example of the loggerheads that seem to characterize everything in Washington nowadays is the continuing inaction on free trade agreements with Panama, South Korea, and Colombia.

Putting aside the peripheral dispute between the factions that contend, on the one side, that free trade agreements (particularly NAFTA) have cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of jobs, and on the other side that the agreements have created jobs, though perhaps not in the same sectors in which jobs were lost, agriculture has generally seen the trade pacts as beneficial to exports of farm commodities.

The U.S. International Trade Commission projects that the agreements would add another $12 billion annually to U.S. exports.

The agreements, which date back to the Bush administration, have been ensnared in a finger-pointing exercise between the Obama administration and the Congress, with each side accusing the other of foot dragging on the approval process.

The president has, on several occasions, publicly chastised Congress for doing nothing on the agreements, and Congress lobs the ball back in his court, saying he won’t send the agreements to Capitol Hill for a vote.

In the meantime, critics note, Canada has approved a free trade agreement with Colombia, giving it a head start on trade with that nation.

Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says Canada’s action “means that, for no good reason,” U.S. exporters “are now disadvantaged in Colombia, a key export market for American goods and services.” The inaction on the trade deal has resulted in declining imports of U.S. grains by Colombia, he says, “a trend that will only accelerate as Canada and other countries deepen their trade ties” with the country.

Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, says because of “the inexcusable delay in Washington,” U.S. exporters face the prospect of falling even farther behind in trade with Colombia. “We must get back in the game immediately, by passing all three of our trade agreements before we lose any more jobs,” he says, “and we stand ready to do so as soon as the president submits them to Congress.”

What is puzzling, observers say, is the president’s recent public speeches deriding Congress for its failure to act on the agreements when he himself has been the roadblock — that he only needs to get on the stick and submit them to Congress for ratification.

The sticking point with the president apparently has been his insistence that Congress restore the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to aid companies and workers hurt by free trade, which Republicans have opposed because of its cost. Indications are that efforts are being made to achieve a resolution.

Once the president sends the agreements to Congress (reports are that he will finally do so sometime this month), under “fast track” provisions, Congress can’t amend the measures, but can only vote up or down.

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