Friday, November 19, 2010

Awesome: Obama Talks KORUS with House Group Dedicated to Its (and Other FTAs') Demise

OK, imagine you're the President of the United States.  You're finally back from a really embarrassing meeting with the President of Korea who tells you in no uncertain terms that the (relatively insignificant) changes you've demanded re: the US-Korea FTA are a complete non-starter.  So what's the first public thing you do on KORUS when you get back stateside?  Oh, of course, you meet with the one House group utterly opposed to the KORUS - and all other US FTAs out there - and you express a willingness to make further (and far more fundamental) changes to the agreement.  Great idea! 

Yeah, just grrreat:
President Barack Obama told congressional critics of a free trade deal with South Korea he would consider asking Seoul for changes to labor, investment and financial provisions of the pact to help win approval of the deal in Congress, a lawmaker said on Thursday.

"He wanted us to give him a list of what our other concerns were," Representative Michael Michaud, a Maine Democrat, told Reuters after he and eight other lawmakers met with Obama.

Obama said he "is willing to go over that list and see which ones they agree with, and the ones that they do (agree with) they'll try (to pursue) when they continue the negotiations with the Koreans," the Maine Democrat said.

But Michaud, who is chairman of the House of Representatives Trade Working Group, said also Obama made clear finalizing the trade deal was a priority and "he definitely does not want to start from scratch" to get that done....
See, kids, there's the silver lining: President Obama doesn't want to totally scrap the existing agreement!  You know, the one that was completed 41 months ago, is worth tens of billions of dollars to the struggling US economy, and is about to get lapped by Korean FTAs with American rivals in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the EU.  Sweet!

In all seriousness, what the @&*$ is going on here?  You may recall that Michaud's House Trade Working Group ironically works to thwart trade at every turn, and that its members, along with the professional protectionists over at Public Citizen and the AFL-CIO, are the champions of the also-ironically-named Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act (H.R. 3012), which, among other nasty things, demands the complete renegotiation of all existing and pending US free trade agreements according to a veritable wishlist of trade-inhibiting and agreement-killing criteria.  Thus, pretty much anything that this group has asked President Obama to include in any future KORUS discussions is going to require far more fundamental changes to the FTA than a few "tweaks" on automobiles and beef market access.

Only one problem: the Koreans have repeatedly said that, while they're open to a side letter or two in order to advance the FTA, the agreement itself can't be touched:
South Korea conceded on Thursday some changes may be needed to the pact but said any revisions would be limited.

"It is not full-fledged negotiations. What is inevitable is we need negotiations on a very limited scale to give and take what each side needs," South Korea's deputy minister for trade, Choi Seok-young, said in Seoul.

The United States wants a slower phase-out of tariffs on South Korean cars and U.S. industry fuel economy and emissions standards to be automatically recognized in South Korea.

Choi said any change to the tariff phase-out schedule will have to involve changes to the text itself and is therefore unacceptable as a matter of principle. But he left open the possibility for discussions.
And Choi's not being an obstinate jerk here; he has plenty of good reasons to refuse any textual changes to the FTA.  First, there's the principle of the matter: the agreement has been completed and signed for well over three years, and, as the Washington Post's depressed editorial board put it, a deal's a deal.  Second, there's the politics: according to the Korean National Assembly's research team, any changes to the agreement's text would require completely restarting the FTA's (not-yet-completed) ratification process.  And considering the fact that the last time the KORUS FTA began that down that ratification road, the national opposition party held a "violent, 12-day seige of South Korea's parliament," it's pretty easy to see why Choi and his colleagues don't want to relive that fun.

So where does that leave us with President Obama's big meeting yesterday with the House (Anti)Trade Working Group (instead of, you know, the powerful House and Senate committee chairmen who are griping about beef and autos)?  Well, I see only two options: (1) Obama's playing rope-a-dope here (i.e., he plans to use this meeting as proof that he took their concerns into account before ditching them, or shoving them into an innocuous side-letter, and submitting the agreement to Congress as-is); or (2) he's going to cave to the group's demands and add them to his laundry-list of renegotiation points, thus further cementing KORUS' untimely demise (and the President's reputation as a politically-motivated trade policy wimp).

I don't know about you, but after last week, I'm leaning towards door #2.


Colin said...

I'm genuinely curious why Obama thinks he even needs the support of such groups. Rep. Kevin Brady, slated to take over the trade subcommmittee, has flatly stated that Republicans are willing to take up KORUS and the other bilaterals in the first half of next year and are interested in their passage. Hell, he even said the GOP is willing to give TPA to Obama to help further the free trade cause. Most Republicans will vote for KORUS, so if Obama can just get even a significant minority of Democrats on board it should pass.

During the campaign Obama bashed NAFTA and this was later explained as just an election year sop to unions. And indeed, since taking office Obama's rhetoric has been more pro-trade. But with this inability to get KORUS done in Seoul, and this latest meeting with free trade opponents, you really have to wonder. Will the real Barack Obama please stand up?

Anonymous said...

Scott - What Republican is taking over the chairmanship of the House trade committee?

Scott said...

Dave Camp (MI) will head Ways & Means, and Kevin Brady (TX) will chair the committee's trade subcommittee.

Steve Spiller said...

Are Mr. Camp and Mr. Brady of the libertarian persuasion?

John B. said...

How naive can you get? What did you expect Obama to say to Michaud and Co. -- take your list of demands and shove it? And did you expect Michaud to come out of that meeting and not put an overly positive spin on what had been said? The KORUS negotiations will certainly NOT be broadened to include labor, investment and finance. Everybody knows what would happen if they were: the Koreans would walk away and never come back. Your breathless posts about the administration's perfidy and fecklessness are getting a little tiresome.