White House likely to meet congressional resistance on free trade

Peter Buxbaum Contributor
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President Obama is likely to meet with congressional roadblocks, if, as he promised in last week’s State of the Union address, he intends to pursue a policy “that opens global markets.”

In a little-quoted passage of the annual speech, Obama also promised to “strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama and Colombia.”

To flesh out what his boss meant in those cryptic references, deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis expounded on trade policy in a morning-after speech before a gathering sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Key pillars of Obama’s trade policy, Marantis said, will include pursuing the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) — a proposed regional free-trade area to encompass the U.S., Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Australia and Vietnam — while also pushing ratification of the already-negotiated free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.

Addressing how the administration would tackle the new item on the trade agenda — TPP — while closing old business, Marantis said, “We can talk and chew gum at the same time.”

The real question is whether the Obama administration will be able to pursue Bush-era trade policies while overcoming congressional objections at the same time. The South Korea, Panama and Colombia trade agreements were each presented to Congress at least three years ago without having been acted upon.

An even bigger question is why Obama is pursuing free trade in the first place. As a candidate, Obama argued that the American public had been oversold on the benefits of free trade and specifically came out against the Colombia FTA.

Marantis said the U.S. trade representative is working to fix the agreements in order to add labor and environmental protections and to address business grievances.

In that regard, the South Korea agreement is the thorniest. Critics say the FTA gives U.S. auto makers and beef exporters too little access to the South Korean market.

The FTA with Panama, on the other hand, could be approved by Congress without threatening any U.S. constituencies. But the Panama FTA has been lumped together with other trade initiatives by Congressional Democrats who have spoken out most stridently against the Colombia FTA, criticizing the Colombian government for not doing enough to curb violence against union organizers and members.

Nine months ago, the administration appeared keen to push the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement through Congress. But a few months later, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke backpedaled, signaling that the FTA could not muster enough votes in Congress.

For proponents, the Colombia FTA is tied as much to hemispheric politics as it is to trade. The United States and Colombia are strategic partners, having signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement on Aug. 14, 2009, which would give the U.S. access to Colombian bases from which to carry out counter-drug surveillance flights. Colombia has proved a bulwark against the two countries’ mutual antagonist, Venezuela.

Venezuela responded to the DCA by cutting off much of its trade with Colombia. The FTA would reinforce Colombia’s status as the closest ally of the U.S. in Latin America.

Congressional Democrats don’t see things that way. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada, has argued during the course of Senate debate that “it is a major mistake to set up the Colombia FTA legislation as the proxy for support for Colombia.”

“An FTA is not a foreign-aid package,” he said.“It is neither a favor for friendly governments, nor a substitute for sensible and sustained foreign-policy engagement in the hemisphere.”

Obama may well see the U.S.-Colombia FTA in strategic terms, but Congress is not likely to follow that lead.

One reason is that opponents of the free trade agreement — most notably organized labor — comprise part of the Democrats’ political base. In addition, poll numbers show that most American have turned away from free trade. A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that 73 percent of Americans believe that a free-trade agreement has had a negative effect on their families, while only 14 percent say they have benefited.

With those kinds of numbers and with congressional elections approaching, it is doubtful many members of Congress will want to stick their necks out for free trade, at least not this year.