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Outside editorial: Politics on trade trumps common sense

Posted: September 12, 2011 - 11:01pm

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald:

Only in today’s bitterly partisan atmosphere in Washington could this happen: A job-creating bill with plenty of support from Republicans and Democrats remains in limbo because the two sides can’t agree on a procedural matter involving a related issue. Is there no sign of intelligent life inside the Beltway?

We are referring, of course, to the three stalled free trade agreements between the United States and Colombia, Panama and South Korea. These deals originated with the Bush administration and were negotiated by the Republican White House. But first the Democrats balked over labor provisions, delaying ratification until President Barack Obama came along and twisted a few arms inside his own party.

The bill’s sponsors, as well as most Republicans, were overjoyed, and so was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These deals are money-makers and job creators. The Colombia trade pact, which removes tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. exports to that country and the remainder over a period of time, is particularly important.

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the agreements would expand exports of American goods by $12 billion. That includes everything from tractors to wheat to technology products. These deals produce jobs and income on the farm, in factories and in supporting businesses.

For Florida, and Miami in particular, this is a no-brainer. Florida is the fourth-largest exporting state in the country. Its two-way trade with Colombia totaled $7.6 billion in 2010. South Florida airports and seaports handled the lion’s share of exports and imports. More: South Florida is the nation’s import center for Colombian flowers and Colombia was the region’s second largest trading partner last year.

According to Colombia’s ambassador to this country, Gabriel Silva Lujan, Florida is home to 5,500 companies that export to Colombia and they stand to lose the most if the free trade pact isn’t approved.

Some U.S. businesses have already lost, Silva said in a recent interview with The Miami Herald, pointing to trade relationships with other countries that are displacing commerce with the United States.

In August, for example, Grupo Nutresa, which imports half of the wheat consumed in Colombia, announced it would be buying wheat from Canada, where a free trade pact went into effect in August. Traditionally, Colombia imports 90 percent to 95 percent of its wheat, mostly from the United States — until now.

In 2008, U.S. products captured 46 percent of Colombia’s food import market. Now the figure is below 20 percent because Colombia’s trade agreements with Canada and the Mercosur bloc are eroding U.S. market share.

So why the hold-up in Washington? In a word, politics.

As a quid pro quo to win FTA votes from labor-supported Democrats, Obama has insisted on renewing a program of retraining workers adversely affected by trade pacts and adding $964 million to that package.

After initial resistance, GOP senators agreed to support retraining, but House Speaker John Boehner won’t offer a guarantee that his members will do the same because of the retraining bill’s costs. And without that guarantee, Obama won’t send the trade pacts to Congress.

How sad. An investment of less than $1 billion in a worker assistance program can expand U.S. exports by $12 billion, and still Congress won’t act. Boehner and company, do the math.

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