Kirk: Korean FTA soon, but Colombia & Panama FTAs still need work

By Jon H. Harsch

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 - In a House Ways & Means Committee trade hearing Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk said President Obama will submit the Korean Free Trade Agreement to Congress “in the next few weeks,” aiming for congressional approval “this spring.”

Committee Chair Dave Camp, R-Mich., welcomed Ambassador Kirk's commitment on the Korean FTA. But he reminded Kirk that the stalled FTAs with Colombia and Panama were signed respectively in Nov. 2006 and June 2007 and called on Kirk to submit those to Congress no later than July 1 this year. Along with other Republicans, Camp pressed Kirk hard on the Colombia and Panama FTAs, saying the problem is that “We are seeing other countries move forward dramatically. We are losing market share in those countries as they develop trade relationships other places.” He said that instead of vague promises, “we really need specifics and we need an action plan, benchmarks that we can meet, to move this forward.”

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Kirk responded that the administration achieved a significantly improved Korean FTA after tough negotiations and that the administration is intensifying its efforts to improve the pending FTAs with Colombia and Panama. He also pointed to USTR successes in dealing with China, Europe and other trade issues. He said the result is that “U.S. goods and services exports through the first eleven months of 2010 were up $239 billion over the same time period in 2009 and we are on pace to reach or exceed President Obama's National Export Initiative goal of doubling exports by the end 2014.”

In the case of Colombia and Panama, however, Kirk warned that “there remain serious issues to be resolved before these agreements can be submitted for congressional consideration and some of these issues go to our core U.S. values and interests such as the protection of labor rights.” He said “Any timetable will be contingent on the successful resolution of these issues” including “violence against labor leaders and prosecution of the perpetrators” in Colombia. Kirk noted that the administration is sending a team of USTR negotiators to Colombia next week to continue work on finalizing the FTA.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over international trade, immediately welcomed Kirk's confirmation that the Korean FTA will go to Congress “in the next few weeks.” He noted that this will trigger a mandatory schedule for congressional action.

“The trade representative's comment today about action on pending trade agreements is very good news, if it's not more lip service,” Grassley said. “The rest of the world has been moving forward with trade expansion, while this administration has put the United States on the sidelines, and it's been at the expense of America's workforce. Employers and entrepreneurs in manufacturing, agriculture and the service sector need new market opportunities to grow businesses and create jobs.”

Grassley matched Kirk's commitment with his own: “If and when the agreement comes to Congress, I'll do everything I can to help get it approved.”

Drawing on all the times they've worked together in the past as fellow Texans with a shared passion for exports, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, called on Kirk to work harder to get all three pending FTAs finalized. Kirk responded that while he maintains his passion for exports, as USTR he now must consider the entire country - including his Detroit in-laws and others who feel their regions have been hurt, not helped, by trade. He pointed out that “there are strong differences on this committee, whether we go forward or not” and that his job is to “restore the American public's faith” in the benefits of trade.

Along with a number of Democrats on the committee, Kirk said one way to restore the public's faith that expanding trade will benefit the country as a whole is to move forward not just with the FTAs, but at the time with “a long-term extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance programs which have helped so many Americans get back on their feet.” The federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs help workers who lose their jobs or whose hours or wages are reduced due to increased imports.

Calling for finding common group, Kirk told committee members that “the only way we can go forward in a way that allows our farmers and ranchers and manufacturers and states that want us to go, is we have to keep faith with the rest of America that wants to know we have a trade policy that works for everybody, not just for some of us.” To illustrate his point, he quoted an African proverb: “You should take no comfort from the hole in my end of the boat.”

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