Sunday, March 13, 2011; 9:09 PM
THE POLITICS of free trade have never been easy for President Obama - and they appear to be getting harder. Mr. Obama wants congressional ratification of a tariff-slashing deal with South Korea, revising it recently to meet the objections of the U.S. auto industry and labor unions.
House Republicans favor the agreement but won't consider it unless the president submits it along with two others, with Colombia and Panama, about which the president has hesitated for two years and still has doubts. The GOP got a boost of sorts when a bipartisan group of 16 former U.S. trade representatives and experts on Latin America recently urged the president to accelerate the Colombia and Panama pacts. On Wednesday the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, who supports voting on the Korea, Colombia and Panama deals together, warned the administration that its position is putting all three agreements at risk.
With so much support for the agreements in both parties, why is the administration asking for more time? The substantive issues that the president has raised - Colombia's purported indifference to labor rights, Panama's status as a tax haven - were never as serious as he contended, and are well on their way to resolution. No one even tries to deny the economic benefits to American companies and workers of the two pacts, especially the one to open the much larger Colombian market. Indeed, it would enable U.S. exports to enter Colombia duty-free, as Colombian products have entered the United States for many years. Alas, in retaliation for Republicans' refusal to extend trade-adjustment assistance, House Democrats have held up extension of long-standing duty-free access to U.S. markets for Colombia and other struggling Andean nations.
Obviously, the White House's hesitation has a lot to do with politics, especially organized labor's doubts about any legislation with "free trade" in the title. But public doubts about free trade extend well beyond the unions. There is, as the administration protests, value in going the extra mile to get maximum support before finalizing the deals. Mr. Obama did that with the Korea pact, and its prospects in Congress are the stronger for it. The problem is that no one quite knows what Mr. Obama's bottom line is, or might be. Colombia could improve on human rights, but it seems strange for the United States to demand perfection when other democratic societies such as the European Union and Canada have recently negotiated free trade with Colombia.
Both sides deserve blame for the politics of Korea, Colombia and Panama spilling over onto other matters. The potential for a trade policy train wreck is real. Everyone needs to focus less on the political tit for tat and more on the policy case for getting these deals done as soon as possible, which is clear and strong. "It is time to identify the specific steps Colombia and Panama must take to move forward," Mr. Baucus said Wednesday, "so we can finally approve our free-trade agreements with these countries, increase U.S. exports and create jobs here at home." From a Democrat, that can hardly be considered unfriendly advice, and Mr. Obama would be wise to take it.