On Trade

By October 17, 2008Trade

Perhaps the lowest moment of Congress 2008 occurred when the Speaker of the House decided to prevent consideration of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Act, blowing up the long-established congressional process for reviewing FTAs under Trade Promotion Authority. The Speaker abandoned accepted protocols for hearings and floor action, simply setting the trade agreement aside with the approval of her Democratic caucus. The Colombia agreement, as with the pacts with Panama and Korea, has never even had committee hearings, much less an up-and-down vote on the House floor.

The inescapable message to the rest of the world was that even if you negotiate in good faith with the government of the United States, the U.S. legislative branch feels no responsibility to act on the results. Make concessions on issues close to the heart of national sovereignty — environmental and labor standards — and you will receive nothing in return save an appearance of weakness at home.

So as uncertainty roils global finances, the U.S. is now perceived as an unreliable negotiating partner, a country where political interests come first. The clear benefits of expanded trade — and exports have kept the U.S. economy afloat this year — are sacrificed even as the U.S. and global economy slide toward recession.

Any reason for hope?

President Bush is keeping the faith, in his speech this morning calling for Congressional enactment of the Colombia trade agreement (presumably in a lameduck session).

Senator McCain made a good pitch for the benefits of the U.S.-Colombia FTA during Wednesday’s presidential debate at Hofstra (transcript). Unfortunately, Senator Obama stuck to organized labor’s anti-Colombia talking points, for which the Wall Street Journal today took him to task in an editorial, “Obama Makes it Up.”

If Colombia hopes to keep spending on judicial improvements and better law enforcement, it needs an expanding economy. In addition to misrepresenting the country’s progress on reducing violence, Mr. Obama has never explained how denying Colombians the FTA will help the country reduce violence. Maybe this is because he knows he’s merely repeating union distortions.

Consistent advocates of free trade like the Washington Post are reduced to optimistic speculation that Senator Obama’s trade criticisms are election-oriented rhetoric. In its editorial endorsement of Obama for president today, the Post wrote:

We also can only hope that the alarming anti-trade rhetoric we have heard from Mr. Obama during the campaign would give way to the understanding of the benefits of trade reflected in his writings. A silver lining of the financial crisis may be the flexibility it gives Mr. Obama to override some of the interest groups and members of Congress in his own party who oppose open trade, as well as to pursue the entitlement reform that he surely understands is needed.

Yes, we can only hope.

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