The White House announced yesterday that a major hurdle had been cleared for bringing the free-trade agreements (FTAs) signed with Colombia, Panama and South Korea more than five years ago to Congress for a vote. This happened after the administration reached an agreement with House Republicans about Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA)—the program that helps American workers who have lost their jobs to overseas trade and increased competition return to work.
TAA was last in the spotlight in February of this year when amendments enacted in 2009 to expand the program expired. A vote to extend those changes was postponed in February because Republicans questioned the cost of the bill, arguing that the program would cost $620 million for the remainder of 2011 and $6.5 billion over the next 10 years. On the other hand, Democrats insist that trade agreements cannot be discussed before there is a decision on the benefits program. Last year $975,320,800 in federal funds was allocated to states under the TAA program, and 227,882 U.S. workers received TAA benefits and services.
A sign that the FTAs may be on their way to approval is the decision by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Finance Committee, to hold a “mock” markup of the draft implementing bills of the three FTAs tomorrow. In addition to the FTAs and TAA, the session will cover the extension of the Generalized System of Preferences and Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA). As the Finance Committee explained in a press release yesterday, “these programs lower costs for U.S. manufacturers importing from developing countries and give developing countries duty-free access to the U.S. market for certain products.”
Given that the FTAs were submitted under fast-track procedures—which at the time allowed former President George W. Bush to negotiate agreements that Congress could merely approve or disapprove—mock markups are the only opportunity legislators have to suggest amendments to the administration’s proposals.
Despite evidence demonstrating the positive economic impact the FTAs with Colombia and Panama would have on the U.S. economy, a difficult political environment has hindered their passage. Before TAA expired, debate over the FTAs was stalled on the basis of unionists’ rights in Colombia—a powerful argument at the time of the 2008 presidential elections.