Votes set on long-stalled pacts
Assistance included for farmers, workers hurt by trade deals
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON -- A House committee has approved long-pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, the first step toward full congressional approval of the pacts.
The Ways and Means Committee votes on Oct. 5 for the three agreements set the stage for full House approval next week and Senate votes in the near future.
President Barack Obama submitted the agreements to Congress Oct. 4.
The president's submission of the agreements was a signal that the administration had confidence that the House will approve trade adjustment assistance, or TAA, for workers and farmers hurt by free trade, which the administration and congressional Democrats have insisted is the price for passing agreements unpopular with labor unions. The Senate has already passed TAA.
The House plans to take it up next week in conjunction with the trade deals.
Farm groups have been pushing for approval of the agreements for several years because they would reduce or eliminate tariffs on U.S. farm products and make them competitive with products from countries that already have free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"The series of trade agreements I am submitting to Congress today will make it easier for American companies to sell their products in South Korea, Colombia, and Panama and provide a major boost to our exports," Obama said in a news release.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk called for swift congressional action on the agreements, along with renewal of trade adjustment assistance reforms and expired trade preference programs.
Kirk also noted that under trade promotion authority, which Congress granted to the Bush administration to negotiate the agreements, the legislation for the trade agreements may not be amended, and Congress has 90 days to hold up-or-down votes on each. Changes to the legislation would make it subject to normal rules and procedures, including amendment and filibuster.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, many congressional leaders of both parties and a wide range of farm groups urged quick passage of the long-stalled agreements, while a smaller coalition of agriculture groups announced their opposition.
Korean Ambassador to the United States Han Du-soo said the submission of the agreements "is a decisive step towards strengthening the economic ties, as well as the alliance, between our two countries. If approved by Congress this October, subsequent approval by Korea's National Assembly could allow the KORUS FTA to go into effect in early 2012."
National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf also supported passage.
"We need to implement these FTAs now," Wolf said, "because while these deals have languished for more than four years, our competitors have negotiated their own trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, and the United States has lost market share in those countries. In fact, the European Union's trade agreement with South Korea went into effect July 1, and a trade deal between Colombia and Canada became effective Aug. 15."
National Cattlemen's Beef Association manager of legislative affairs Kent Bacus said he is hopeful that the "tremendous bipartisan support" of all three agreements means they will be approved soon, but he added he would make no assumptions about a timeline.
"Given the history of these trade agreements, which have fallen victim to political games on several occasions, we are not about to make any projections," Bacus said.
A coalition of more than 50 groups representing small farmers, including the National Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition, R-CALF USA and Food and Water Watch, said in a letter to congressional staff on Sept. 14 that they opposed the agreements.
According to the letter, the agreements "will only accelerate the economic disasters in agriculture we have already seen: Industrial farms that depend on massive amounts of petroleum-based inputs, low paying, exploitative jobs in processing and packing plants, and increased consolidation throughout the agricultural supply chain."
But most market analysts said that they believe that all the trade measures will be passed this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.