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Congressional Update: Next Steps for U.S.-Colombia FTA

April 08, 2011

The U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement has moved closer to submission to the U.S. Congress. In a plan signed yesterday by U.S. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia committed to a timetable of labor-protection measures, signaling a path forward on securing the pact’s approval (the lack of which had provoked the impatience described in the Council’s last congressional update.) As  the agreement moves towards congressional action, the Council urges members to express the support of the business community.

Breakthrough on Labor Issues

In order to break the impasse blocking adoption of the long-pending free trade agreement (FTA), the Santos administration agreed to a detailed Colombian Action Plan Relating to Labor Rights. According to the framework, Colombia will reform its penal code by June 15 to include penalties for employers who undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively; appoint 95 investigators by the end of the year to support investigations into crimes against union members; and, by April 22, expand the scope of protections for labor activists.

Although senior administration officials have not committed to a specific time frame for submitting the FTA to Congress, President Obama noted that the resolution represents a “basis” for moving forward. President Santos praised the “very good news,” for which Colombia has been waiting for five years. “Today, finally, we have the green light,” he said in remarks following his meeting in the Oval Office.

President Obama’s comments reflected his attempt to balance Republican calls for immediate action while convincing trade skeptics in his own party that he has sufficiently addressed their concerns. Just a week before the announcement, a speech by Representative Sander Levin (D-MI), ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, expressed lingering concerns on labor issues, despite mounting bipartisanship in calls to conclude negotiations. On April 4, for example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) published a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, describing the FTA as “an accord in our national economic and foreign policy interests.”

Congressional Reactions

Nonetheless, Colombia’s agreement on labor reforms does not appear to have shifted congressional divisions on timing, with supporters demanding that the Obama administration immediately send up all three pending FTAs, including Panama and South Korea, and opponents continuing to reject linking the three.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) called on the administration “to work with Congress to implement all three pending trade agreements—Colombia, Panama, and South Korea—in tandem with one another as soon as possible.” Representative Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, kept up the drum beat, urging the administration to begin the technical drafting work on the implementing bill so that Congress may consider the three agreements by July 1.

Some key Democrats, such as Senator Baucus and House of Representatives Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), welcomed the new labor deal, in contrast to Representative Michael Michaud (D-ME), who leads the protectionist House Trade Working Group. Others criticized Republican supporters on timing, with Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, accusing them of holding the South Korea pact hostage to the Latin American agreements.

Cautious Optimism on Next Steps

In response to reporter questions on a White House conference call, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that Colombia’s action plan provides a pathway to have “a conversation with Congress” for beginning the process of considering the FTA. Essentially, the United States and Colombia have now agreed to agree, but several steps remain, including a determination of how the three pending FTAs will be packaged or sequenced. The administration is also pressing for renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance and Andean trade preferences, which expired in February.

Once submitted to Congress, all three pending FTAs are expected to advance under trade promotion authority (TPA) because they were negotiated before that authority lapsed in 2007. Also known as fast-track procedure, TPA requires Congress to consider implementing legislation within 90 days, while precluding amendments. The House must act first on the bill within 60 days; the Senate cannot act until the bill passes the House.

The first deadline set by the action plan is only two weeks away. In President Santos’s words, “April 22 is going to carry with it a series of commitments with regard to worker protections, worker rights, the strengthening of justice. And so we are going to start off on April 22 with making a presentation to Congress.”

Even if the timeline beyond April 22 remains unclear, yesterday’s announcement is significant in that it indicates strong White House commitment to ratification of the Colombia agreement. Despite the sense of urgency expressed by many members of Congress, however, immediate passage is not guaranteed. Consensus surrounds only one aspect of the ratification calendar: domestic politics require action this summer, well before the 2012 election year.

Call to Action

The Council of the Americas will provide opportunities to engage with the U.S. Congress in the coming weeks. We also urge our members to consider expressing their support directly to the Congress, particularly following the April 22 deadline.

Note: The Council released a statement welcoming the announcement that the U.S. and Colombian governments have made progress on a path forward for passage of the agreement. The Council also encourages all members to express their support of the agreement to congressional offices.