Saturday, April 12, 2008

Boehner Column: "Killing Colombia Free Trade Agreement Maintains Economically Dangerous Status Quo"

It was bad news for our region recently when the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which would have created good jobs for Ohio and opened new markets for Ohio farm exports, was killed by political gamesmanship in Congress. In refusing to bring this agreement before the House for a vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled that she puts the concerns of big labor bosses above those of Ohio ’s farmers and working families.

Agriculture is the backbone of the economy here in the 8th Congressional District. We rely not only on current markets to move our products but also on expanding to new ones. Powerful labor bosses in Washington , however, oppose the Colombia trade agreement. They contributed huge sums of money to the Democratic Party in 2006. They’ve pledged to pump even larger amounts into the Party’s coffers in 2008. And in exchange, they got what they wanted on the Colombia trade deal: it was unceremoniously killed by the Democratic Speaker of the House.

Democratic leaders’ political maneuvering clearly tells our trading partners, allies and our own workers that catering to special interests is more important than creating jobs and helping our economy grow.

For the past 15 months, Administration officials have negotiated with Congressional leaders to find a responsible compromise on a trade agreement that would let U.S. goods enter an important South American market virtually tariff-free. Current rates vary, but U.S. cars going into Colombia face a 35 percent tariff; furniture is hit with a 20 percent tariff; and high-quality U.S. beef is socked with an 80 percent tariff. Compare that to Colombian goods, which since 1991 have enjoyed almost complete duty-free access to our markets.

In February, the House voted to extend the Andean Free Trade Preferences Agreement that allowed Colombian goods to continue entering the U.S. virtually tariff-free while maintaining the unfair status quo on our exports. The intent of the Colombian agreement was to eliminate the barriers on our goods entering that country, which would lead to more jobs here in Ohio and throughout the country as businesses would no longer need to worry about meeting stiff tariff rates.

In addition to being a valuable potential trading partner, Colombia is America ’s leading democratic ally in South America . It has waged a long and so-far successful battle against drug traffickers and terrorists that seek to destroy its government and establish a kind of Communist narco-state. Efforts to destabilize Colombia ’s government are supported by leftist Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, a committed ally of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuban dictators Fidel and Raul Castro. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has repeatedly said that the best help America can provide against Colombia ’s adversaries – who are our adversaries – is to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

President Uribe was certainly not alone in encouraging us to pass this important agreement. Many valuable international partners expressed a desire to see Congress take swift action on the agreement and send it to the President for his signature, arguing it would send an overt signal of our shared desire to see stability and democracy in Latin America . Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pointedly addressed security concerns in a speech last September before the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the U.S. turns its back on its friends in Colombia , this will set back our cause far more than any Latin American dictator could hope to achieve,” he said. In fact, an Investor’s Business Daily editorial grimly notes that the political maneuver used to kill this agreement was being called the “Chavez Rule” in the Latin America media.

Indeed, having seen the political games that just played out, how can any nation trust that future trade agreements made with the United States will not meet the same fate? Speaker Pelosi’s unfortunate decision is likely to wreak havoc on our international trade commitments and on future attempts to open new markets for goods produced by American farmers and producers.

A complaint that frequently surfaced among those seeking to kill this agreement was that the administration allegedly did not consult with congressional leaders. Let me set the record straight on that. There have been hundreds of meetings over the last 15 months in which the administration reached out to the Democratic leadership in Congress in hopes of reaching mutual agreement on how and when the treaty should be considered. Labor and environmental standards identical to those included at the behest of Democratic leaders in the Peru Free Trade Agreement that the House approved in February were written into the Colombian agreement. There were also serious conversations between the administration and the Speaker of the House specifically over the past six to eight weeks.

Despite all of this, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement become another in a long list of legislative victims of election-year political gamesmanship. What could be more fair to our workers than to provide access for our goods to important new markets in South America virtually tariff-free? Our global competitors are already working to expand their exports to Colombia through trade agreements. By killing our agreement with Colombia , Democratic leaders sacrificed more than 200 years of international credibility for the shallowest possible short-term gain. This trade agreement was good for our farmers, ranchers, small business owners and other American exporters who will now continue under an unfair and economically dangerous status quo.

Boehner represents Ohio ’s 8th District, which includes all of Darke, Miami and Preble counties, most of Butler and Mercer counties, and the northeastern corner of Montgomery County . He was first elected to Congress in 1990.

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