Politics & Policy

Trading Up

The president forces a Democratic choice.

President Bush announced Monday that he will send the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress for a vote. It was a bold decision and the right one. Whatever the outcome, the vote will be a defining moment for U.S. trade policy.

Monday’s decision quickly met with recriminations from Democratic leaders in Congress, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and trade leaders Max Baucus and Charles Rangel, who claim the move circumvents protocol and all but guarantees failure of the agreement. But the president, having already jumped through countless hoops to assuage congressional critics, sensed that Congress wasn’t acting in good faith and instead had no plans to give the administration its endorsement.

Since the trade agreement’s signing 16 months ago, the Democratic leadership has been playing good-cop, bad-cop with the administration, suggesting that rank-and-file Democrats were strongly opposed and that the only hope for converting enough of them was to follow the leadership’s script.

To that end, last spring, as part of a grand bargain to win Democratic converts, the administration and the Colombians agreed to reopen the agreement to insert enforceable labor and environmental provisions into the text. But like implacable hostage-takers, congressional Democrats soon changed their demands.

Violent crime in Colombia — particularly murders of unionists — became the main objection to the agreement. Indeed, Colombia has been a notoriously dangerous and violent country over the years and unionists have been assassinated frequently and often with impunity, but as my colleagues Dan Griswold and Juan Carlos Hidalgo point out in a recent Cato Institute study, there has been a massive reduction in violence under the government of Alavaro Uribe. Between 2002 and 2007, common homicides have declined by 40%; the number of trade unionists killed has dropped 88 percent (to 25 in 2007); kidnappings have declined by 82%, and; total terrorist attacks are down 77 percent. Not perfect, but the country is clearly moving in the right direction.

But those statistics along with hundreds of first-hand accounts gathered on congressional fact finding missions to Colombia and hundreds of meetings between administration officials and Congress about how to advance the agreement only produced more of the same: unspecified demands for “more progress” in Colombia and more stasis in Congress.

In a statement yesterday, Pelosi and Rangel summarized their position, thusly:

Despite progress made by President Uribe, Colombia remains a dangerous place to be a labor activist, and for those who commit these acts of violence, there is little threat of prosecution or punishment. Sustained progress on the ground remains a prerequisite for our support.

Congress was never going to give this agreement its blessing, so the president had no real choices. And despite the rhetoric in their denunciations, the congressional leadership is not concerned that the president’s action jeopardizes prospects for the agreement’s passage, but is worried because the vote will provide a substantial dose of clarity by forcing Democrats to face their demons and finally take a definitive stand on trade before November’s election.

Up until now, Democrats have been able to rail against trade to win union financial support, but have not had to act accordingly at roll call. Sure, most Democrats opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement and most Democrats opposed granting Trade Promotion Authority to the president, but that opposition was inconsequential at the time. Both CAFTA and TPA passed.

If Democrats oppose U.S.-Colombia in the same proportions, the agreement will fail. In the agreement’s defeat, Democrats will have authored a very loud statement about how the United States views trade and its leadership role and about how the United States treats its allies in a region that is increasingly hostile to U.S. institutions and policies. Courting countries and encouraging economic and social reform abroad will become that much more difficult, as U.S. cache and influence necessarily degrades.

In reality, the only reason there has been a 16-month hiatus since the agreement was signed is that the Democratic party is in the grips of an identity crisis. U.S. producers, consumers, and the Colombian people have been held hostage to Democratic soul searching. The president’s decision will force Democrats to finally come clean about trade.

And if the agreement is voted down, which at this point appears to be more likely, we will have achieved clarity. In defeat, the Colombians at least will see that they have some friends and supporters in Washington, and Americans will learn in no uncertain terms before November where the Democratic party stands on issues trade and leadership.

— Daniel Ikenson is associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

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