Possible Summer Action on Free Trade Agreements

After months of negotiation, the administration announced April 6 an action agreement with Colombia to resolve outstanding Colombian labor issues that could bring a long-stalled free trade agreement (FTA) with the South American country to Congress this year.

Under the terms, the Colombian government must meet a series of benchmarks on labor laws, protection against labor violence and prosecution of those who commit violence, a move which is meant to clear the way for the Obama administration submitting a bilateral free trade agreement to Congress.

According to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Colombia will be expected to complete some steps of the action plan before the agreement can be submitted to Congress, while others are slated to be fulfilled while Congress considers the deal and final action will be resolved before the deal is ratified.

Assuming that Colombia fulfills its part, Kirk said the agreement will satisfy administration labor concerns, and once that pact has taken effect the U.S. will be able to enforce labor provisions through dispute settlement processes as spelled out in the pact.

Though much of the attention has been on the Colombian agreement, the White House also confirmed that a pending pact with Panama is nearly complete. Panama’s National Assembly is moving “very quickly” to enact labor rights and tax transparency legislation that has delayed submission of the Panama accord. Additionally, Kirk has notified Congress that Panama’s recent ratification of a tax-exchange agreement has cleared the way for a technical drafting of the U.S.-Panama FTA. The announcement is the first official step toward ratifying the agreement later this year.

Meanwhile, the Korean trade agreement has been negotiated and Kirk is hopeful that Congress will begin deliberating the Korea FTA early next month when the Easter recess ends.

Negotiators produced a revised deal in December to address U.S. concerns over lopsided auto trade—the biggest hurdle to congressional approval—by introducing a delayed phase-out of auto tariffs in return for U.S. concessions on pork and medicine.

President Obama has said passage of the three trade agreements, among other things, means an estimated $10 to $11 billion in U.S. GDP, an addition of 75,000 American jobs and the ability for U.S. businesses to better compete in the international marketplace.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) called on the administration to continue the path forward, start technical drafting work to implement the Colombia and Panama agreements and continue the technical work on the Korea agreement, so that Congress can consider all three trade agreements by July 1.

In a joint statement, Reps. Camp and Brady said “the July 1 timeline continues to be very important for American exporters and workers, who will continue to fall behind their competitors in countries that already have trade agreements with Colombia until our trade agreements are implemented.”