Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos drew laughter and applause when he placed the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement (FTA) in the “hands of God” at an AS/COA program last month. But now that the White House has submitted the long-pending pact to Congress, its earthly fate lies just where it belongs.
House Speaker John Boehner has pledged quick consideration of the agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, in tandem with the Senate-passed legislation reauthorizing Trade Adjustment Assistance. This afternoon the Ways and Means Committee favorably reported out all three implementing bills, leaving supporters and opponents to gear up for a floor debate and vote expected as early as next Wednesday.
That debate will center on job creation on the one hand and labor concerns on the other—particularly in the case of Colombia, which remains the most controversial of the three countries. The Obama Administration has rightly emphasized the economic arguments that carry weight on Capitol Hill in the context of 9 percent unemployment. But it’s worth remembering that the FTAs are just as important to U.S. geopolitical interests.
As a package, they will help restore U.S. credibility on the global stage, following the damage inflicted by the debt-ceiling debate and before President Obama hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November. Rapid approval of the FTAs is imperative for advancing the next chapter of the global and hemispheric trade agenda, including the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership—a vehicle for sustaining not only U.S. economic competitiveness, but also political engagement. In this sense, the three FTAs are more than three bilateral agreements; they are a basic threshold to overcome, without which there is little point in discussing the future of U.S. trade policy.
In the Western Hemisphere, ratification of the U.S.-Colombia deal will avoid the risk of alienating a valuable ally in a strategically important region where U.S. allies are scarce. Despite the opposition of organized labor, the FTA also represents U.S. leverage in seeking continued progress on labor rights. If the U.S. does not engage now to support the positive change witnessed to date, when will it engage? It is precisely because of the FTA that the Colombian government signed the Labor Action Plan, the most detailed and ambitious document on labor protections ever negotiated by the U.S. government.
The U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement deserves a large margin of bipartisan support. President Santos may be praying from Bogotá, but it is Washington that should be seeking a much needed diplomatic fillip. Even if overdue, passage of the pending agreements will serve to renew U.S. leadership in the region and beyond.
*Kezia McKeague is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is director of government relations at the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.