Congress should ratify Colombia trade agreement


POSTED: Thursday, November 13, 2008





        House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to block a Colombia free trade agreement from congressional ratification.

A modest trade agreement with Colombia has been resting on the steps of the Capitol awaiting ratification since April, and time is running out. President-elect Barack Obama has opposed the deal, which means congressional action is needed before President Bush leaves office to assure elimination of Colombian tariffs on U.S. goods.

Opponents of free trade agreements have blamed them for causing the export of U.S. jobs. For that reason, Obama has opposed a free trade agreement with South Korea for giving it freer access to American markets and has said he will negotiate changes in the North American Free Trade Accord to address various issues.

Opponents of the Colombia pact have expressed concern about the killing of trade unionists by right-wing paramilitary groups. They note that 197 unionists were killed in 2001 and only one conviction was obtained. Although the country remains dangerous, the situation has improved since the election in 2001 of President Alvaro Uribe. He has increased protection and the number of convictions has risen. Last year, 39 trade unionists were killed and 36 assailants were convicted.

More than 90 percent of Colombian goods now arrive tariff-free in the U.S. while American exporters to Colombia pay tariffs averaging 14 percent and as much as 35 percent. Under the agreement, 80 percent of U.S. products entering Colombia would immediately be tariff-free, with the remainder achieving that treatment within 10 years.

Even though the U.S. is Colombia’s largest trade partner, importing more than $8 billion in American products, it is not surprising that the yearly U.S. trade deficit with Colombia exceeds $3 billion. The trading field clearly needs to be leveled.

After Colombia's legislators approved the agreement, President Bush sent it to Congress in April for ratification. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stiff-armed a House rule requiring a vote on a trade agreement within 90 days of its arrival and held it hostage until Bush would agree to more economic relief for taxpayers. House strategists estimate that as many as 50 Democrats would be tempted to vote for the agreement if Pelosi's opposition were not a factor.

After Obama and Bush met in the Oval Office on Monday, the New York Times cited unnamed sources as saying the president told Obama he may agree to new funding for the beleaguered auto industry and a new economic stimulus package if Congress agreed to ratify the Colombia pact. Both the White House and Obama camps denied that any such proposition was discussed, although Obama transition co-chairman John Podesta acknowledged, “The topic of Colombia came up.”

If Pelosi continues to block the the agreement at the House entrance, Obama should take a closer look and consider its merit.