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Interview with U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks

January 31, 2007

“When you look at the statistics, we have lost jobs to China and India—countries where we do not have a freetrade agreement. So, it is not the free-trade agreements that cause the problem.”

Now serving in his fourth term, Representative Gregory Meeks (NY-6th District) is a leading voice in the U.S. Congress on free trade votes. In 2005, he cast one of the deciding votes in favor of passage of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). A member of the House Committees on Financial Services and International Relations, as well as the New Democrats Caucus and the Democratic Leadership Council, he is a steadfast supporter of policies that foster growth both at home and abroad.

With the Peru and Colombia Trade Promotion Agreements currently pending congressional ratification, the Americas Society and Council of the Americas spoke with Representative Meeks to assess possibilities for passage and look at the society-wide effects of these trade agreements and overall trade policy.

AS/COA: The Colombia and Peru Trade Promotion Agreements were both signed last year and negotiations have been concluded with Panama. Given the Democratic takeover of both houses of congress, where do you see the hemisphere trade agenda fitting into the overall congressional priorities list? And more specifically, what are the prospects for ratification of the Peru and Colombia Agreements?

Meeks: I think as far as priorities are concerned, we, as Democrats in the majority, understand that it is important to have a real trade policy with the Western Hemisphere. Given some of the immigration problems we have had, we know that creating opportunities helps them [potential migrants] and helps us here also.

“I think that Peru has a better chance of passing and sustaining itself as opposed to Colombia”

As it pertains to Peru and Colombia specifically, I think that Peru has a better chance of passing and sustaining itself as opposed to Colombia. The reason for this is that we were very close to reaching an agreement on Peru in the 109th Congress, and I think that it was just a matter of a word or two concerning labor standards. I think that conversation and that dialogue is going to continue in regard to the labor-related language. Because Peru has indicated that they do not have a problem with it, we must decide whether or not it [labor standards] can be included in a side letter or if it has to be in the agreement itself. But once that can be resolved, I think you could look for Peru to be a bill that could pass.

Colombia has more difficulties simply because of the high rate of crime in Colombia and the number of murders, etc., affecting some of the labor leaders. With human rights organizations and others really putting some pressure on Colombia, I think that it [the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement] has a longer way to go in winning support. From my point of view, I think that we still need to deal with Colombia. What we are doing [stalling on the Colombia agreement] is leaving Colombian workers in the informal sector, which subjects them to brutality and to those doing illegal work in Colombia. We need to convert more of those jobs into the formal sector where workers have a better livelihood and a greater opportunity for being unionized and gaining worker rights. I think that we need to move in that direction, but I am not optimistic about Colombia being passed in this Congress.

AS/COA: Many in the business community have assumed that the trade agenda is likely to be stalled in the near term, and in regard to Peru and Colombia, you have spoken about Peru’s passage being more likely than Colombia’s passage. What is the state of discussions on trade within the Democratic Caucus, and what specific steps can be taken to ensure the advancement of U.S. economic and security interests in the area of free trade?

Meeks: The state is that there is a lot of discussion now. As a member of the New Dems [Democrats] and talking to the Democratic Leadership Conference and members of the Ways and Means Committee, I know there is a lot of talk regarding trade and how we can move forward with a very good trade agenda. And what is happening, which has not happened in the past is that Democrats are talking to Republicans. Chairman Rangel has reached out to some Republicans to ask for their opinions on agreements and how we can move forward on trade. I think it just takes some time to have these kinds of conversations and find some real middle ground so that we can collectively move forward on the trade agenda and not have them [trade agreements] simply turn into partisan political bickering to draw lines in the sand for elections. I think that is changing now by the kind of dialogue beginning to take place.

“...What is happening, which has not happened in the past is that Democrats are talking to Republicans.”

AS/COA: You have been very adamant in speaking about the free trade as just one mechanism for promoting development and increasing prosperity. How do you see the gains from trade agreements being expanded through bilateral and multilateral assistance?

Meeks: Trade capacity dollars are tremendously important. That is what will drive this. When you trade and do not give trade capacity dollars and training, then the poor are subjected to conditions where they will not benefit from trade. And if they do not benefit, then they do not see any gains. Both sides of the trade agreement [discussion] need to focus and have this conversation. We have to talk about improving lives by making sure that individuals in other countries are beginning to be trained on how to benefit from trade, as well as how we are going to be able to create jobs here in the United States and how that is going to help produce a better economy. Also, multilateral support of trade facilitation and infrastructure building will make a significant difference in how people view trade.

“We have to talk about...how we are going to be able to create jobs here in the United States.”

AS/COA: What specific mechanisms do you see the U.S. implementing to help generate trade capacity in partner countries? And how are trade agreements being used to help generate jobs in the U.S.?

Meeks: I think there are a couple things to do, some of which we have already started to implement. For example, looking at CAFTA, one of the things that I fought for when I voted for CAFTA was to double the amount of trade capacity dollars. Now, what we have to do is watch and make sure that those dollars are being utilized in the proper way. I think there may be a role for the ILO (International Labor Organization) or some other international organization to get involved and make sure that we are training individuals and the money is going to its intended destination.

On the other side, the untold story with respect to trade benefits for America is the benefits of trade to services. To that end, I am chairing and we are creating a bipartisan services caucus to begin to get the message out how trade in services benefits America and creates jobs here in America. I can testify coming from New York that not only are they good jobs, but they are high-paying jobs, not low-end jobs. That story has gone untold. So I am looking to work with a lot of American companies to begin to share that story.

“The untold story with respect to trade benefits for America is the benefits of trade to services.”

AS/COA: Looking globally, there has been a new push recently for progress in the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks. How important do you see the Doha Round to advancing the benefits of trade and helping to create jobs?

Meeks: Doha is very important, and I am very pleased that we are about to break the deadlock in the talks. It is a difficult and unique situation that we have with Doha. Generally you have a situation where the developed countries are really just talking among themselves. Now the non-developed countries are asking the developed countries to change some of their policies for the benefit of underdeveloped countries, which I think would create a better world. For example, we have to address issues dealing with agriculture. With the agriculture bill soon coming up here in Washington, and in dealing with our colleagues in the European Union, especially Great Britain, we have an opportunity to sit down and implement some reforms that will help undeveloped countries. And when we do that, what we are creating are new, open markets to sell our goods and services. This will create more jobs for us and better lifestyles for people in other countries. And when we do that, we are also making our country more secure. Individuals who are doing better, prospering, and seeing a better way of life for their families are not as concerned about terrorism or jealous about other countries and their success. Instead, they are busy focusing on making their lives better. That is the direction where we have to head.

AS/COA: Congressman, the last question pertains to the business community and its links to trade agreements. Specifically, we have been talking at length about the Peru and Colombia trade agreements. How do you see the business community helping to promote the benefits of these agreements?

Meeks: I think what the business community can do is to not wait until the last second to come to the Hill and start talking to members. They need to be coming out early on and spreading the word about what trade means for members’ communities and districts. When you are talking politics, a lot of it is local. It makes a tremendous difference if you can relate to members how their districts benefit from these trade agreements. For example, there is a lot of talk about CAFTA. What was not said was how the United States market was open to the CAFTA countries already, but the CAFTA markets were not open to the United States. So if you are talking about fair trade, we needed to open their markets because our market was already open to them. That is the kind of message we need our companies to get out to the public so we can provide a message that is different from the individuals who have the rhetoric the other way around.

Finally, let me say this. Too often we allow some pundits to talk about trade agreements as if all trade agreements have caused the loss of American jobs. But, when you look at the statistics, we have lost jobs to China and India—countries where we do not have a free-trade agreement. So, it is not the free-trade agreements that cause the problem. The fact of the matter is if you look at where we have free-trade agreements the trade has become more balanced than it had been previously. And so, free-trade agreements should not be seen as a negative or a bad word, but as a way to try to neutralize the trade imbalance. Countries with which we do not have trade agreements are the ones where we have a substantial trade deficit. “When you look at the statistics, we have lost jobs to China and India—countries where we do not have a free-trade agreement. So, it is not the free-trade agreements that cause the problem.”

“When you look at the statistics, we have lost jobs to China and India—countries where we do not have a free-trade agreement. So, it is not the free-trade agreements that cause the problem.”


This interview is published by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, non-partisan organizations founded to promote better understanding and dialogue in the Western Hemisphere, working in collaboration to advance their respective missions. The Americas Society is a public charity described in I.R.C. Section 501(c)(3), and Council of the Americas, a business league under I.R.C. Section 501(c)(6). The positions and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors or guest commentators and speakers and do not represent those of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas or its members or the Boards of Directors of either organization. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.