Drop Dead, Colombia

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

THE YEAR 2008 may enter history as the time when the Democratic Party lost its way on trade. Already, the party's presidential candidates have engaged in an unseemly contest to adopt the most protectionist posture, suggesting that, if elected, they might pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared her intention to change the procedural rules governing the proposed trade promotion agreement with Colombia. President Bush submitted the pact to Congress on Tuesday for a vote within the next 90 legislative days, as required by the "fast-track" authority under which the U.S. negotiated the deal with Colombia. Ms. Pelosi says she'll ask the House to undo that rule.

The likely result is no vote on the agreement this year. Ms. Pelosi denies that her intent is to kill the bill, insisting yesterday that Congress simply needs more time to consider it "in light of the economic uncertainty in our country." She claimed that she feared that, "if brought to the floor immediately, [the pact] would lose. And what message would that send?" But Ms. Pelosi's decision-making process also included a fair component of pure Washington pique: She accused Mr. Bush of "usurp[ing] the discretion of the speaker of the House" to schedule legislation.

That political turf-staking, and the Democrats' decreasingly credible claims of a death-squad campaign against Colombia's trade unionists, constitutes all that's left of the case against the agreement. Economically, it should be a no-brainer -- especially at a time of rising U.S. joblessness. At the moment, Colombian exports to the United States already enjoy preferences. The trade agreement would make those permanent, but it would also give U.S. firms free access to Colombia for the first time, thus creating U.S. jobs. Politically, too, the agreement is in the American interest, as a reward to a friendly, democratic government that has made tremendous strides on human rights, despite harassment from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

To be sure, President Bush provoked Ms. Pelosi. But he forced the issue only after months of inconclusive dickering convinced him that Democrats were determined to avoid a vote that would force them to accept accountability for opposing an agreement that is manifestly in America's interest. It turns out his suspicions were correct.

"I take this action with deep respect to the people of Colombia and will be sure that any message they receive is one of respect for their country, and the importance of the friendship between our two countries," Ms. Pelosi protested yesterday. Perhaps Colombia's government and people will understand. We don't.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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