Monday, March 14, 2011

Time for Obama to stand up for free trade

President Obama had made rhetorical gestures towards free trade in his State of the Union, but that is it. Now that he's headed off on a trip to Latin America, perhaps he could devote some time to working for ratifying the three free-trade agreements in Colombia, Panama, and South Korea that have been languishing since the Bush administration. Doing so will give oomph to our economy.
Three stalled trade agreements are jeopardizing a vital cog of this country’s economy. The inability of Congress and the Obama administration to compromise on Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, Korea and Panama is costing the United States $3-billion in lost agricultural trade.

Here’s the breakdown. If it is ever fully implemented, the Korean free trade agreement would result in approximately $1.8-billion annually. Gains in exports through the Colombian agreement are expected at $815-million. The Panama agreement would bolster U.S. ag exports to more than $195 million.

These trade agreements are crucial for the economic well being of this nation’s farmers and ranchers as well as the economic health of their rural communities and the whole of the U.S. economy.

Make no mistake about it, there is a direct correlation with the beginning of the supply chain on this nation’s farms and ranches and the workers who package and move the livestock, grain, fuel and fiber to foreign consumers.

A decline in U.S. exports will result in a decline in work for those who are part of that food pipeline. Every billion dollars in agricultural exports creates work for approximately 9,000 workers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The dawdling that the Democrats have forced on these agreements will be responsible for not only losing us this possible trade, but for sacrificing our position in trade in these countries in the future. For where we are not stepping up, other countries are stepping up.
While the United States has dallied with these free trade agreements for years, other nations — our competitors — are pursuing and in some cases have secured their own trade agreements. Case in point is Canada. They have completed negotiations with Colombia and their agreement awaits implementation.

This debate on free trade is no longer just about generating potential export gains but about the loss of existing U.S. exports. This nation and its farmer and rancher producers are loosing billions of dollars to competitors with our stalled agreements.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. During the 10-year period from 2000 to 2009, the Chilean wine market share in Korea rose from 2.4-percent to 21.5 percent. During this same time period, the U.S. share fell from 17.1-percent to 10.8-percent.

Here’s another. The U.S. agriculture peak market share with Colombia totaled 46-percent in 2008. Last year it dropped to 21-percent as Argentina took our share of the ag export pie.

Just one more. A recently completed trade deal between Canada and Panama has given our neighbors to the north a competitive edge over us for products such as beef, pork, beans and various processed foods — if the Canadian trade deal goes into effect before the U.S. agreement.

This country’s inability to take action on the trade front has resulted in a loss of market share and economic growth during a period of time when we cannot afford it. The U.S. governments inability to move these free trade agreements forward will continue to benefit our competitors around the world while damaging U.S. agriculture producers and American food-supply workers.
Republicans support free trad. It is the Democrats who have been blocking these agreements. But now a couple of leading Senate Democrats, Max Baucus and John Kerry have spoken up in favor of getting all three agreements passed this year.
Mr. Baucus is no doubt hearing from Montana wheat farmers who are losing big as Canada steals their Colombian customers. "American farmers lost $1 billion in sales to Colombia over the last two years," Mr. Baucus said. "China has tripled its share of the Colombian market, ours has declined by 20%. American jobs are at stake."

Senate and House vote-counters say they can pass both Colombia and Panama if they are combined with the South Korean pact that Mr. Obama finally endorsed last year. All that's required is for the White House to agree. Mr. Kirk rambled on about this or that meeting with the Colombians without ever saying what he wants to change in a deal that has already been negotiated twice.

"How can [Colombia] depend on the United State anymore if we just don't act? You know, it's huge, strategic geopolitical reasons for us to conclude this agreement in Colombia," Mr. Baucus said. "We don't conclude this, the trend lines are pretty clear. This is no-brainer, Mr. Ambassador, no-brainer, and I just hope we get this passed quickly."
Obama needs to exercise leadership in getting these through and needs to work with Republicans, just as Clinton did on NAFTA.

But somehow, when it comes to leadership, Obama is absent.