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Rep. Levin: Send Korean trade pact to Congress

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Obama administration should send the Korean-U.S. free trade agreement to Congress for approval even if the Republicans do not agree in advance to support it, House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., said today, adding that Congress should approve it before Memorial Day.

The administration “should act with confidence” on the KORUS agreement, Levin said in a speech to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Although Republicans have said they will not support the Korea agreement unless the administration also sends the free trade agreements the Bush administration negotiated with Colombia and Panama at the same time, Levin said he believes KORUS would pass on its own. “I’m in favor of the administration breaking the deadlock. Period,” Levin said.

Time is of the essence on the Korea agreement, he said, because a European Union-Korea agreement goes into effect in July. “Unless Republicans stop stalling, our companies will be disadvantaged in that market,” Levin said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also urged quick ratification of the Korea agreement when he visited St. Louis on Monday.

American companies would put pressure on Congress to support the pact, Levin said, citing a statement by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman that he would urge members of Congress to vote for a stand-alone Korea agreement.

A spokeswoman for Stallman confirmed his statement, adding in an email, “When the administration submits the Korea FTA to Congress, we will support passage. However, before the end of this summer, we would expect the administration to also submit the Colombia and Panama agreements to Congress for a vote.”

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk should send the draft implementing legislation to Congress immediately and request Ways and Means undertake a review and a voluntary “mock markup,” Levin said.

After a reasonable period for consultation, he said, the administration should formally send the implementing legislation so that it can be introduced and so that fast-track or trade promotion authority procedures — including the specific timelines for consideration — can be started.

The Republicans would not stop the process of ratification as the Democrats did when they were in the majority and the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement was brought up, Levin said, because the contents of the KORUS agreement are not in dispute.

He noted that progress has been made on both the Colombia and Panama agreements.

“What is different now — very different — is that the Santos administration [in Colombia] is expressing a determination to address conditions affecting the role of workers and their basic rights,” Levin said.

On Panama, Levin said that if Republicans had succeeded in passing it earlier, “Panama would still be an unchallenged tax haven.”

The Obama administration, he said, is working to conclude those talks and Panama is taking steps to ensure its laws reflect international core labor standards.

Levin touched on a number of other subjects in his speech:
  • Agricultural issues remain to be settled before the United States supports Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, he said, noting that the issue of how Russia handles dissidents will remain even after the economic issues are settled.
  • He expects agriculture to be an issue in negotiations with Vietnam as part of the administration’s proposed Trans Pacific Partnership. He did not mention catfish, but the United States and Panama have had continual conflicts over a provision in the 2008 farm bill that transfers inspection of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration to the Agriculture Department, and broadens it.
  • China’s currency devaluation costs U.S. businesses an estimated $125 billion in exports, he said, adding that the U.S. government should file a WTO case over that issue even though the WTO dispute resolution process has not been used to address that problem.
  • The U.S.-Peru free trade agreement reflects a “new model for trade” because of its labor, environmental, investment and medicine provisions, he said.
  • The Doha round is not moving because there are so many substantive problems between countries, he said.
  • He opposes merging the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department, which has been mentioned as a possibility in the administration’s effort to make the trade agencies function more efficiently. USTR should continue to be an agency that reports to the President and to Congress, he said.