Accuracy in Media

Congressional leadership resistance and election year politics are to blame for stalling the passage of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA), said Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Christopher A. Padilla last week at the Heritage Foundation. The TPA, previously called the
U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, was signed by the U.S. and Colombia
two years ago in November of 2006, yet it still awaits congressional
approval needed for final passage.

Padilla, frustrated with Congress’ inaction, points the finger at House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi for thwarting the TPA’s progress. The Bush
administration sent the agreement to Congress for a straight up-or-down
vote in April 2008, but Speaker Pelosi refused to put it up for the
vote within the 90-day timeline, breaking procedural rules that grant
trade agreements “fast track” authority through Congress. She said
earlier this spring, “if brought to the floor immediately, it would
lose. And what message would that send?”

Padilla now feels even more confident the TPA will garner enough votes
from both sides of the aisle to constitute a “bipartisan majority.” He
said, “I believe that if the agreement were put up for a vote and
members were allowed to vote their consciences, I think we would get
strong bipartisan support.”

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Padilla both escorted more than 25 Democrats to Colombia to see
first-hand the transformation taking place there as a result of
integrating Colombia into the global economy. Padilla said, “It’s fair
to say they all came back very impressed with the progress and
transformation in that country.”

Currently, about ten or 11 Democrats disagree with Pelosi’s freeze on the TPA, including representatives Gregory Meeks (NY), Joseph Crowley (NY), Jim Matheson (Utah), and Jim Cooper (Tenn.).

The irony of congressional resistance to the TPA, according to Padilla,
is that the U.S. already has free trade with Colombia, since the
passage of the Andean Trade Preferences Act in 1991, an effort to alleviate poverty and combat drug trafficking in Colombia. One aspect of the act was Plan Colombia,
in which the U.S. had “completely and unilaterally thrown open its
markets to almost everything Colombia makes to come into the United
States duty free.”

For almost 17 years, an estimated 92 percent of Colombian exports
entering the U.S. are tariff free, and Congress votes every couple of
years to renew this trade preference. The TPA in contention today would
make the trade preferences Colombia already enjoys permanent, ensuring
trade security for Colombia.

But while Colombia enjoys preferential duty-free benefits, the free
trade is only one-way. U.S. exports to Colombia are still heavily taxed
with costly tariffs. For example, Colombian coffee and bananas enters
the U.S. with a zero percent tariff, but a can of Pepsi made in the
U.S. pays a 20 percent tariff when sent to Colombia, and an apple grown
in Pennsylvania pays a 15 percent tariff.

More than $1.1 billion in tariffs have been levied on U.S. exports to
Colombia since the signing of the agreement almost 600 days ago,
hurting U.S. farmers, ranchers and small business owners. The TPA would
eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, these costly tariffs levied
on American goods.

To Padilla, the economic argument for the TPA is a “no-brainer.” He
asks, “Why would we continue to give duty free access to all these
Colombian products while refusing the opportunity to eliminate $1.1
billion in tariffs?”

From a foreign relations perspective, Padilla strongly feels that
stalling on TPA is punishing Colombia when Colombia is one of the
U.S.’s strongest allies in Central America, not to mention they are
“winning the battle” against the domestic terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Padilla calls Colombia a “model” for countries like Iraq and
Afghanistan in the war against terror, and thinks Congress is turning
its back on an ally.

“Why in the world when we have this ally in Colombia that is not only
fighting terrorism but fighting terrorists that are getting, it
appears, support from neighbors like [Venezuelan President] Hugo
Chavez,” said Padilla. “Why would we turn our back on an ally like
that?”

Pelosi and other democrats usually cite labor union concerns as
justification to ignore the TPA. Padilla acknowledges that there has
been violence in the past (39 union leaders killed in Colombia last
year, and 17 killed in 2008, according to U.S. labor movement
estimates), yet he says Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made enormous strides in quelling violence in his country since he
took office five years ago. One notable example is the city Medellin, previously the murder capital of the world, but now with a lower rate of murder than Baltimore, Maryland.

The fact that Democrats are shying away from trade agreements abroad is
symptomatic of economic anxiety at home, Padilla says. People in the
U.S. are worried about losing their jobs, rising food prices and energy
costs, and it seems natural to want to slip into economic isolation to
remedy this. But Padilla warns economic isolation is not a cure for
economic anxiety. He stresses the TPA would benefit U.S. farmers,
ranchers and small business owners by creating jobs through economic
integration with other countries such as Colombia, and relieve the
burden of costly tariffs on U.S. exports.

The 110th Congress must vote on the TPA before this session ends,
Padilla urges. Colombia’s trade preferences expire next on December 31,
2008, and if the agreement is not passed, the U.S. may risk losing a
valuable ally in Central America.

“It deserves a vote in the Congress of the United States,” said
Padilla. “At the minimum, it deserves a hearing and a straight
up-or-down vote.”

It should be noted that Accuracy in Media editor Cliff Kincaid inspected the agreement and found it deceptive. “This Colombia agreement, for
example, has 18 pages devoted to caring for the environment through new
institutions and arrangements,” Kincaid writes. “You don’t have to read
past the preamble to see that it puts the U.S. further down the road of
sovereignty-destroying ‘hemispheric integration.’”




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