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Free trade agreements head to markup as supporters urge quick passage

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee will hold a markup Wednesday on the Korea, Colombia and Panama free trade agreements that President Barack Obama submitted to Congress on Monday for approval, but two key Democrats on the committee say they will oppose the Colombia agreement.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, many congressional leaders of both parties and a wide range of farm groups urged quick passage of the long-stalled agreements, while a smaller coalition of agriculture groups announced their opposition.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., also praised the submission of the agreements but did not announce a timetable for consideration in his committee.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said the markup will occur at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Ways and Means Committee meeting room, 1100, in the Longworth House Office Building across the street from the Capitol.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also confirmed that the House would take up the trade adjustment assistance (TAA) legislation that the White House has demanded be passed along with the agreements.

“Now that all three agreements have been transmitted, they will be a top priority for the House,” Boehner said in a statement. “We will quickly begin the required process to consider these bills and intend to vote on them consecutively and in tandem with Senate-passed TAA legislation.”

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., said the Obama administration had improved the three agreements that were negotiated by the Bush administration.

Levin said he would support the Korea and Panama agreements. The Korea agreement, he said, “opens South Korea’s market to U.S. automotive products — the source of three-quarters of our trade deficit with Korea — and sets an important precedent for ensuring trade agreements replace one-way trade with two-way trade for American products.” He also said Panama “has brought its labor laws into compliance and has addressed our tax haven concerns.”

But Levin said that because the Colombia agreement still lacks “a provision explicitly linking implementation of the [free trade agreement] to Colombia addressing anti-union violence, impunity and fundamentally deficient labor laws under the action plan, the legislation is fundamentally flawed and I oppose it.”

Levin also noted that the House Rules Committee had reported out a rule for House consideration of TAA, and that he now sees “a path forward on TAA and the Generalized System of Preferences, which also should never have been allowed to expire.”

House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Ranking Member Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said he, too, would support the Korea and Panama agreements, but oppose the Colombia agreement because “the administration’s efforts have fallen short and failed to address the union violence and impunity, as well as the workers’ rights issues.”

Vilsack urged quick passage of all three, saying that “for American agriculture, passage of these agreements means over $2.3 billion in additional exports, supporting nearly 20,000 jobs here at home.”

Embassies and farm groups issued a flurry of statements on the agreements. Here are highlights:

Korean Ambassador to the United States Han Du-soo said the submission of the agreements “is a decisive step towards strengthening the economic ties, as well as the alliance, between our two countries. If approved by Congress this October, subsequent approval by Korea’s National Assembly could allow the KORUS FTA to go into effect in early 2012.”

Colombian Ambassador to the United States Gabriel Silva said Obama’s submission of the agreements “confirms, once more, the progress made by Colombia in protecting labor rights and in our fight against violence and impunity. If approved – and we believe that is going to be the case – the U.S. will strengthen its competitive presence in Colombia. The lack of an FTA between our two countries has allowed others, that already enjoy duty free access, to displace American products.”

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman urged quick passage. “Combined, the three FTAs represent nearly $2.5 billion in new agriculture exports and would create the economic growth that could generate support for up to 22,500 U.S. jobs,” he said.

National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf also supported passage. “We need to implement these FTAs now,” Wolf said, “because while these deals have languished for more than four years, our competitors have negotiated their own trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, and the United States has lost market share in those countries. In fact, the European Union’s trade agreement with South Korea went into effect July 1, and a trade deal between Colombia and Canada became effective Aug. 15.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association manager of legislative affairs Kent Bacus said he is hopeful that “the “tremendous bipartisan support” of all three agreements means they will be approved soon, but he added he would make no assumptions about a timeline. “Given the history of these trade agreements, which have fallen victim to political games on several occasions, we are not about to make any projections," he said.

National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said, “With over 95 percent of consumers living outside of the U.S., these agreements are an important step in expanding trade opportunities for American agriculture.”

The National Cotton Council welcomed the submission of the Colombia agreement, but was silent on the Korea and Panama agreements. “The U.S. cotton industry has increased exports of cotton and cotton products under the provisions of the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA),” the cotton council said. “However, approval of the FTA will enhance U.S. competitiveness and benefit farmers and manufacturers by removing the tariffs which are currently applied to U.S. products entering Colombia.”

But not all groups praised the submission.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “These three agreements are similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Both of those agreements have worsened the U.S. trade deficit, because the U.S. does not compete on a level playing field with other nations.”

In particular, Johnson said, “South Korea has manipulated its currency twice in the past. … Colombia has one of the worst labor records in the world, routinely committing violence against those who attempt to organize workers. With countries that the U.S. has a trade agreement with, U.S. agriculture has a net trade deficit in seven of the past eight years.”

A coalition of more than 50 groups representing small farmers, including the National Family Farm Coalition, R-CALF USA and Food and Water Watch, said in a letter to congressional staff on Sept. 14 that they opposed the agreements.

“Proponents have singled out these agreements’ potential for economic growth in the agricultural sector as a net benefit for all Americans,” the groups said.

“We contest these claims, and argue that these trade agreements must be evaluated for their effects on family-scale, independent producers, rather than the benefits they afford to select corporate agribusinesses, meat processors and grain refiners. Passing more free trade agreements will only accelerate the economic disasters in agriculture we have already seen: industrial farms that depend on massive amounts of petroleum-based inputs, low paying, exploitative jobs in processing and packing plants, and increased consolidation throughout the agricultural supply chain. Concentrating on export growth in agriculture destroys the kind of family supporting, fair wage paying jobs that Americans desperately need.”

The Citizens Trade Campaign sent an announcement to its supporters today to make calls to Congress to "jam the phone lines" to stop approval of the agreements.