Sunday, December 19, 2010

And now it's the Republicans' turn to muck up the KORUS FTA

For several years, it has been the Democrats and their traditional ties to labor, along with powerful US Senator from Montana Max Baucus being in the pocket of Big Beef, that have been the biggest threat to ratification of the Korea-US free trade agreement. As the Democratic nominee for president, then-Senator Barack Obama bashed the deal so feverishly — often with bogus notions about the contemporary state of trade with South Korea — that I withheld my vote for him in 2008.

So when the Obama administration's painstaking renegotiation of the KORUS FTA was finally over, it was assumed that the KORUS FTA would sail through the US Congress: Obama and a slew of moderate Democrats went to bat for this new deal, and with a new Republican majority in the House come January 5, there should be no problem getting the votes needed for approval, right? Right?


But now the wheels may be coming off again. While the case has successfully been made that the free-trade agreement with South Korea would mean more trade, jobs, and opportunities for Americans (and other benefits, like cheaper quality South Korean goods), no such sell has been made about Panama or Colombia, which also have Bush43-era FTAs pending.

But following the success of the GOP in holding hostage tax cuts for the middle class so they could push through the far less popular (and far less fiscally responsible) tax cuts for incomes earned beyond a quarter million dollars, Republicans have decided that they will hold up the KORUS FTA in order to push through the FTAs with Colombia and Panama

Senate Minority Leader
Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Republican congressional leaders say they will use a new trade deal with South Korea as leverage to move a long-delayed agreement with Colombia, a strategy that could galvanize Democratic opposition to free trade and force the White House to choose between its liberal base and the business community.

Some Democrats are expected to support the South Korea deal, after labor unions split on whether to endorse it, but there is less of a prospect for that with Colombia, where drug violence and an armed insurrection have led to one of the worst records of repressing union organizing in the Western Hemisphere over the past decade.

Republicans, who have supported Colombia’s conservative government, have long pushed for implementation of the free-trade pact despite the history of anti-union violence in the country. They now see linking South Korea and Colombia as a way to make President Barack Obama’s new embrace of trade politically costly for him with his own party, which overwhelmingly opposes free-trade pacts, according to an aide to a top House Republican and an outside trade adviser to Obama.
One of the things that hurt the KORUS FTA was the (inaccurate) perception that South Korea and China were same-same. That is, China is a huge polluter and abuser of human rights whose use of dirt-cheap labor and currency manipulation has helped it amass a tremendous trade deficit with the US, and those who don't know Seoul from Shanghai assumed that South Korea was pretty much a carbon-emitting copy.


The gripe about the Colombia FTA was along much the same lines. The United Auto Workers bashed South Korea over labor and environmental issues (even though Detroit's desire to foist gas guzzlers onto the South Korean market was a major holdup for the FTA), as if their complaints about Colombia and South Korea were same-same.

This cynical ploy by the Republicans to lump these incongruous FTAs together will only serve to strengthen that unfair association, possibly to the point of galvanizing Democratic opposition (and possibly even voter opposition) against all the FTAs, including the KORUS FTA. (Thankfully, though, the UAW now supports the KORUS FTA.)

Look, the KORUS FTA is a stand-alone FTA. It was a hard-fought but ultimately reasonable agreement that should be passed for the good of both countries. I'm not so sure, however, if the conditions in Colombia warrant the same description or treatment. Maybe the criticisms about a lack of labor freedom in Colombia are valid. Maybe the worries that an FTA with Colombia will have a deleterious effect on American jobs more akin Mexico via NAFTA are something to pay attention to. Maybe Bogotá shouldn't be rewarded for its human rights abuses with an FTA.

All I know is that these concerns about Colombia need to be addressed, and the KORUS FTA should not be held hostage to it. If the KORUS FTA really is a plus for the US economy and American workers, it shouldn't be held up.

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