August, 29th 2011

On Obama's free trade rhetoric

– Liz Mair

Readers will know I'm not a hater of President Obama by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, there are some things I agree with him about, or at least get close.  Unlike Matt Damon, for instance, I think Obama's doing a better job than I expected on education (and that's with it being noted that the guy has never really been regarded as the teachers' union's BFF).  I have also found myself nodding along as he has recently talked about the importance of passing free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama, though I must admit I've been surprised by his rhetorical focus on free trade given that it hasn't exactly stood out as a policy priority for him throughout his career.

What's that you say, Green Bay Press-Gazette?  Free trade maybe isn't as big a priority for Obama as his comments during addresses and press conferences and the like would lately suggest?  His administration hasn't actually sent these free trade agreements to Congress in order for them to receive a vote?  Oh...

The agreements can't be passed until the administration submits them to Congress, and it has not yet done this, although a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative said the administration "has been eager" to do that.

It's nice to hear they're so eager, although the sentiment would be more convincing if the agreements were actually submitted.

The real problem is squabbling over the level of aid under a program for workers displaced by foreign competition. Democrats seek to keep spending at elevated levels, while Republicans want to scale back to earlier levels.

Surely this issue could be handled separately while Congress moves on the three trade deals, which were all signed before Obama came into office.

While they've been on the shelf, the world has moved on.

Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva Lujan, notes that U.S. farmers once claimed 46 percent of Colombia's food import market. Now the proportion is 20 percent — and likely to go lower. A free trade pact between Colombia and Canada, another big wheat exporter, went into effect last week.

Colombia is the sixth-largest market for Caterpillar, another big U.S. exporter. But Caterpillar's products, too, may be at a disadvantage in Colombia's growing mining sector, as Colombians seek alternatives free of the tariff-based mark-ups applied to U.S. products.

All of this makes little sense when you consider that U.S. tariffs on Colombian goods are already minimal, while their tariffs on our goods remain quite stiff. The agreement would lower that barrier.

Indeed so.  Listen, I am sensitive to the plight of those whose livelihoods are adversely impacted via trade (though I think there are a multitude of reasons why manufacturing has been in decline in the US, why wages are stagnant, etc., and that free trade is among them).  The matter should be discussed, debated and resolved.

But in the meantime, to riff off John McCain, can we submit the danged agreements to Congress and let them receive a vote, or stop acting as if this is all about inaction on Congress' part (as opposed to that of the administration)?

Anything less may make for great chat, but in my book amounts to posturing-- posturing that bugs the heck out of me as someone who comes from the most trade-dependent state in the country.  Let's get on with it already.  [intro]


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