Bloomberg | 2 March 2009
Obama to Push Panama Accord, Work on Colombia, Korea (Update1)
By Mark Drajem
March 2 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama plans to ask Congress to approve a long-delayed free-trade agreement with Panama and work to resolve remaining issues with the South Korea and Colombia accords so they can be ratified.
In its first annual report on trade policy, the Obama administration said it will act first on Panama, while working to clear up lawmakers’ concerns with all three accords. Obama also plans to ask Mexico and Canada to revise provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to the report.
“Managing our nation’s trade policy and engagement in the world economy has become an ever more complex challenge,” the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in the report.
The report is the first detailed description of what the Obama administration plans to do on trade, and it was released even before Obama’s pick to run the trade office, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, is confirmed by the Senate. Kirk is scheduled to appear before the Senate Finance Committee on March 9.
During the election campaign, Obama criticized former President George W. Bush’s trade policy, and vowed to rework agreements with Colombia and South Korea and force Canada and Mexico to add new protections for workers and the environment to Nafta.
Bush completed free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, but was unable to get Congress to approve them. Democrats voted last year to strip Colombia of so-called fast- track protection and put off a vote on that agreement.
Killing a Soldier
The Panama accord was delayed after the election of National Assembly President Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, who is under indictment in the U.S. for killing an American soldier in 1992. Gonzalez left office September of last year, and since then lawmakers such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said they were ready to push for the agreement.
Trade between the U.S. and Panama was $5.5 billion in 2008, and the U.S. is Panama’s largest trading partner. The agreement would give U.S. companies guaranteed access to supply the project to expand the Panama Canal.
Still, a majority of Democratic lawmakers voted against a similar agreement with Peru in 2007, and many may not be eager to vote on a Bush proposal.
“It’s a political miscalculation,” Lori Wallach, president of Global Trade Watch, which has organized opposition to Nafta, Peru and other trade pacts. A vote would provoke “huge political unpleasantness,” he said.
More than 50 House members, led by Maine Democrat Mike Michaud, sent a letter to Obama last week, urging him to tear up all three pending trade deals.
Labor unions and many Democrats say they oppose the Colombia deal because of a history of violence against union organizers in that South American nation.
In addition to the free-trade agreements, the Obama administration echoed complaints of American farmers and manufacturers about the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization, saying the outline of a deal that was put forward last year doesn’t contain enough benefits to justify a deal.
“It will be necessary to correct the imbalance in the current negotiations in which the value of what the United States would be expected to give is well-known and easily calculable, whereas the broad flexibilities available to others leaves unclear the value of new opportunities for our workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses,” the report said.