GOP calls for quick action on free trade pacts

Rep. Dave Camp, the House Republican responsible for overseeing trade policy, said Tuesday that Congress should act on all three pending free trade agreements within the next six months. ...

Rep. Dave Camp, the House Republican responsible for overseeing trade policy, said Tuesday that Congress should act on all three pending free trade agreements within the next six months.

Camp, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, told a hearing that completion of the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama was "a sure-fire way to create American jobs by growing U.S. exports of goods and services."

The Michigan lawmaker cited estimates made by President Barack Obama that the South Korean agreement alone could create 70,000 American jobs.

All three agreements were signed in 2007 but Congress has put off ratification, with Democrats claiming the pacts didn't adequately address such issues as Korea's restrictions on U.S. autos and beef and violence against labor leaders in Colombia. The United States and South Korea recently reached a deal to further open Korea's auto market.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., who chaired the committee before Republicans captured control of the House, defended the go-slow approach, saying they resulted in better deals. "You may have been willing to pass flawed trade agreements, but we were not," Levin told Republicans. "We went about fixing Peru, Panama and Korea." The last free trade agreement approved by Congress was in 2007 with Peru.

Levin said, that in addition to the recent revision of the South Korean agreement, Panama was now preparing to address tax haven and labor law concerns and the new government in Colombia appeared to be taking a stance that provided an opportunity to address the serious issues of worker rights.

Camp stressed that time was of the essence because the European Union and Canada have signed, or are poised to sign, agreements with the three countries and "continued inaction on our agreements will result in further missed opportunities to create U.S. jobs.

He pointed to a committee report showing that the U.S. share of Colombia's market for corn, wheat and soybeans fell from 71 percent in 2008 to 27 percent through the first 10 months of 2010. At the same time, the market share for Argentina's exports of these products to Colombia was up by 37 percentage points as the agriculture provisions of its trade agreement with Colombia went into effect.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who heads the trade subcommittee, also urged quick action. "Panama is ready to go. We have the votes to pass it tomorrow." Colombia too, he said, "continues to make dramatic improvements in human rights, labor rights."

Supporters of the agreements argue that the three countries can already export almost all their goods to the United States duty-free, and that the pacts would significantly reduce tariffs and non-tariff barriers imposed on U.S. exports.

Roy Paulson, president of a company producing eye and face safety equipment and a representative from the National Association of Manufacturers, said his company now faces tariffs ranging from 6 percent in Panama to 20 percent in Colombia. "My nightmare is that my competitors will get free trade agreements first," he said.

Stephen Biegun, vice president for international governmental affairs at Ford Motor Company, expressed strong support for the South Korean accord, saying that with recent revisions Ford could confidently say that it will help open "what has been to date the world's most closed automotive market."

Levin noted that in 2009 South Korea exported 476,000 cars to the United States, while U.S. automakers exported less than 6,000 cars to South Korea.

Obama has backed approval of the trade agreements and has put forth a general plan to double trade in the next five years, supporting 2 million American jobs. But the trade pacts were not a priority in the past session of Congress.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose committee oversees trade, said Monday he was traveling to Colombia and Brazil next month and that "now is the time to resolve outstanding issues and approve the (Colombia) free trade agreement so American ranchers, farmers and workers can have a chance to compete."

Also in the Senate, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio — a former U.S. Trade Representative — and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced legislation supporting the three pending trade agreements and reinstating the president's authority, called fast track, that provided for expedited congressional action on trade deals.

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