President Obama is committed to pursuing an ambitious trade agenda that will help grow our economy and support good jobs for U.S. workers by opening new markets. To achieve that objective, we seek to provide a level playing field that creates economic opportunities for U.S. workers, companies, farmers, and ranchers, and that ensures our trading partners have acceptable working conditions and respect fundamental labor rights. As part of this broader trade agenda, the Obama Administration has worked closely with the government of Colombia to address serious and immediate labor concerns. The result is an agreed “Action Plan Related to Labor Rights” that will lead to greatly enhanced labor rights in Colombia and clear the way for the U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement to move forward to Congress. The U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement will expand U.S. goods exports alone by more than $1.1 billion and give key U.S. goods and services duty free access in sectors from manufacturing to agriculture. It will increase U.S. GDP by $2.5 billion and support thousands of additional U.S. jobs.USTR's announcement elicited cheers of support from House and Senate leaders, pretty much all of the US business community, and most other free trade advocates out there. And in one sense, supporters of the FTA are right to be happy: after more than two years of absurd stalling, ridiculous excuses and fake negotiations, this is the first set of concrete timelines and benchmarks to which the Obama administration has been willing to publicly commit itself. So if/when the Colombian government jumps through all of the administration's hoops, there will be absolutely no excuse to further delay the FTA. This is good.
But please allow me to be a Debbie Downer for a second and state the blatantly obvious, ahem, not-so-good news here: this "action plan" still leaves us all without a freakin' clue as to when President Obama will actually submit the FTA's implementing legislation for final congressional approval, and it still leaves that decision in the President's hands alone. As this article in The Hill stated plainly: "U.S. trade officials didn't provide a timeline for ratification of the pending free trade deals, saying they would need to meet with congressional leaders to determine the path." Yet a simple comparison of the press releases issued today by the Democrat and Republican heads of the Senate Finance Committee makes clear that this "path" is still totally up in the air, and that the folks on the Hill are still waiting for some sort of real timeline from the White House. Here's Chairman Baucus (D-MT), being painfully vague and nonchalant about when the Agreement might reach Congress (emphasis mine):
The agreement between the Administration and Colombia on an action plan to build on the progress Colombia has made in strengthening labor rights, reducing violence and punishing violent offenders will allow us to move the Free Trade Agreement forward. The Administration should immediately begin working with Congress on the implementing legislation so the President can submit and Congress can approve the agreement in the coming months.And here's Ranking Member Hatch (R-UT) with a lot more urgency, but still no clue as to timing (again, emphasis mine):
While long overdue and despite unreasonable delay, today’s announcement by the Administration is welcome news.... We must now start the necessary work with the Administration to prepare the U.S.-Colombia trade pact for congressional consideration - in tandem with the pending trade agreements with South Korea and Panama.... Passage of these three trade agreements will yield new economic opportunities for Americans, strengthen our international alliances, and preserve our role as the single greatest economy in the world. They deserve careful and timely consideration by Congress.So congressional Democrats who support the FTA would be pleased to see it "in the coming months," while congressional Republicans want it "now" and "in tandem with" the Panama and Korea FTAs. And the same folks who opposed the deal yesterday still oppose it today.
In other words, unless Presidents Obama and Santos announce tomorrow a firm, formal schedule for the submission of the FTA's implementing legislation (e.g., after Colombia has timely met half of the benchmarks listed in the plan), this action plan hasn't really changed anything. The agreement's fate still depends entirely on the Obama administration's promises and intentions - the only difference is that those promises and intentions now must be couched in the action plan's more formal terms. That's not really much of a difference: when the White House alone is satisfied with the action plan's implementation, the FTA will move. If they want it to move quickly, they can move it quickly, and if they want to slow walk the FTA into 2013, they could probably figure out an excuse or ten to make that happen. Yet with Canada-Colombia FTA on the verge of implementation, and with American exporters continuing to pay millions of dollars worth of needless Colombian tariffs, further delay is simply not an option.
In this light, today's big news is no different from me telling my wife that I have an "action plan" for taking out the garbage, when trash day is tomorrow. Plan or not, it all comes down to whether I really care about handling my responsibilities and meeting a quickly approaching deadline. If I don't care, then the garbage man's just going to pass us by (again), and the trash will pile up (again).
So if I'm a GOP congressman or a US business leader, and I really want to see this FTA approved by Congress in 2011, then I'll give today's announcement a polite golf-clap, but I'm certainly not going to cave on Democrat trade priorities (like TAA) or to stop publicly pressuring the President to submit the agreement right now. Because until the Colombia FTA is actually sent to Congress, then no amount of "action plans," strong commitments or good intentions should be sufficient to get me to call off the dogs. That approach may have been okay in 2009, but not now.
Now, it's time to take out the damn trash.
UPDATE: The Big Obama-Santos meeting clarified nothing on the FTA's timing. Nothing.