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Why are three free-trade deals languishing on Obama’s desk?

By Mitch McConnell,

According to the White House, President Obama has been huddling with advisers on a jobs plan he’ll present to Congress this week. One thing he could do immediately is finalize the free-trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama that have been languishing on his desk.

For nearly three years, Republicans and a number of Democrats have been calling on the president to approve these deals to create a level playing field with America’s competitors overseas, vastly expand the market for U.S. goods, strengthen our ties with three important allies and create jobs for Americans. Yet the deals have been stuck at the White House since Inauguration Day.

Publicly, the White House claims to support all three agreements. It even said in July that Republicans are the ones standing in the way of ratification. But this is absurd because Congress can’t ratify trade agreements until the president submits them for congressional approval. He knows as well as I do that once he does, all three would garner wide bipartisan support.

What’s the real holdup? For three years, the administration has delayed finalizing these deals because unions have been extracting concessions in exchange for their support. Early on, they demanded further concessions and political reforms from our trading partners, all of which have been satisfied. Now, they’re demanding taxpayer funds for worker training programs that many believe are not only duplicative and costly but may not even be effective. Still, I and others have told the president we are prepared to allow this program to move ahead for a vote as a sign of good faith and to move the trade deals forward.

These delays have put America at a major economic disadvantage, costing jobs and opportunities. As the president has been holding out over the demands of labor union leaders, other countries are benefiting from free-trade deals of their own. In early July, South Korea sealed a free-trade pact with the European Union. A few weeks ago a free-trade deal took effect between Colombia and Canada. Yet four years after our three trade agreements were originally signed, the United States is losing ground.

Americans have good reason to be frustrated with the political maneuvering behind these delays. At a time when 14 million Americans are looking for work, job creation should be a no-politics zone. Moreover, the president concedes that these agreements would create tens of thousands of jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that completing these agreements would protect 380,000 jobs that we can’t afford to lose. It’s indefensible for the president to wait another day.

By sending these trade deals to Congress immediately, Obama would not only help ensure the creation of jobs here at home but would also boost Americans’ confidence about the prospects for a broader economic recovery and, crucially, about lawmakers’ ability to work together. Obama says he wants bipartisan solutions. Here’s one Congress is willing to enact immediately.

Unfortunately, the president’s continued refusal to act hints at an even bigger threat to our recovery: the administration’s flawed approach to the economy. For them, it seems, no economic proposal is acceptable unless Washington is firmly at the helm, and no amount of evidence about government’s past failures at engineering economic prosperity will convince them otherwise. The fact that the president’s first stimulus is a punch line doesn’t seem to matter.

It’s worth noting that President Obama sold the 2009 stimulus on the assurance that it would create jobs. How did that work out? Two-and-a-half years later, America is deeper in debt; its once-pristine credit rating was downgraded for the first time; and 1.6 million fewer Americans have jobs. If the past 21 / 2 years have taught us anything, it’s that government spending isn’t the solution.

Some people are wondering what the president’s plan will look like. One thing we can be sure of is that whatever he proposes will cost money and give even more power to Washington. And this stubborn refusal to let individuals and businesses take the lead on getting Americans back to work is what is holding the economy back. The question is: How much worse does the economy have to get before the president puts aside his failed economic philosophy and outdated political playbook?

The problem with our economy is not that government is doing too little but that it’s already doing far too much. That’s why Republicans will continue our efforts to empower individuals and job creators, not government, to boost the economy. A good place to start is for the president to send us the trade deals that have been sitting on his desk.

The writer, a Republican from Kentucky, is the Senate’s minority leader.

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