"Pass these jobs bills now," was the familiar call, not from President Obama, but from Washington Republican Rep. Dave Reichert at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting Wednesday to consider three pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
It's been a rare moment this Congress when House Republicans and the Obama administration are on the same side. But with the pending trade deals, and the Colombian deal in particular, that's just how it's playing out. The administration's biggest opposition comes from its own party, as a number of House Democrats take a stand against labor-related violence in Colombia.
For both Republicans and the Obama administration, the three trade agreements on the table are all about job creation. Indeed, the trade deals are a major feature of the president's jobs plan, rolled out last month. According to Obama's own measure, says House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp from Michigan, passing the three trade deals could create as many as 250,000 American jobs as U.S. industries are given greater, and in many cases duty-free access to markets in Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
The deals, supporters argue, also level the playing field and help American companies compete with other foreign export nations, many of which have already beaten the United States to the punch in implementing trade agreements with these three countries. "Other countries are going around the world running laps on us, getting better preference in multilateral and bilateral agreements that help steer trade toward them and away from us," said Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. "If you're standing still on trade, you're losing."
On Panama and South Korea, most Democrats agreed with their Republican counterparts. However, when it comes to Colombia, Democrats view the trade deal as an opportunity to push the Colombian government to more aggressively fight anti-labor-union violence within its borders.
Though the number of union homicides has declined in the past decade, in 2010 around 50 union workers were killed, and so far in 2011, 22 have been murdered. "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?" asked Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis at Wednesday's committee meeting. "It is a humanitarian crisis like no other in our hemisphere."
Labor rights have long been the central issue that prevented Congress and the Obama administration from moving forward on the deal. However, Colombia, in an effort separate from the trade deals, has increased labor standards as part of Labor Action Plan signed with President Obama earlier this year. According to Timothy Reif, general counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative, Colombia's government, under President Juan Manuel Santos, has made significant progress and met all its Labor Action Plan targets to date. Last year, the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, took Colombia off its labor watch list. "Colombia, one of our strongest allies, has made remarkable progress on labor rights on their own," said Texas GOP Rep. Kevin Brady, who heads a subcommittee on trade.
The AFL-CIO, the United States' largest network of labor unions, has been actively protesting the trade deals, noting both the record of violence against labor unions and the possibility of job displacement within the United States. To help with the latter, Democrats have insisted that Trade Adjustment Assistance, which is intended to help Americans who lose their jobs due to trade, be passed alongside the trade agreements.
The two parties have also been at odds over the timing of the bills. The trade agreements were signed during the Bush administration in 2006 and 2007. According to Republicans—most of whom are eager to pass the bills as soon as possible—the deals have been delayed this administration largely due to Democratic demands. Michigan Democratic Rep. Sander Levin defended the time it took to negotiate the deals. "There was no delay. There were active efforts to hammer out good trade policy," he said, adding, "Unfortunately, the Bush administration believed trade was an end—in and of itself—and rejected including meaningful workers' rights and environmental standards in trade agreements."
The debate over the three trade deals also brought up larger questions regarding trade with China, which has gained significant attention in Washington this year. On Monday, a bill aimed at increasing tariffs on countries like China that undervalue their currency advanced in the Senate. Also on Wednesday, Democrats, like Washington Rep. Jim McDermott and Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, argued for their fellow members to pass similar legislation in the House.
Despite opposition from the left, the three bills regarding Colombia, Panama, and South Korea passed favorably through committee. While Republicans voted unanimously for all three deals, a dozen Democrats voted against the Colombia deal, three against the Panama deal and five against the Korea deal. The bills could get a vote on the House floor as early as next week. All three are then expected to pass through the Senate by the end of the month.
"Today has been five years in the making and could not come at a better time for American workers, consumers and businesses," said Camp Wednesday in a statement. "The agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea will help create and support 250,000 American jobs and add over $10 billion to our gross domestic product—all without adding one dime in new government spending. I look forward to the quick passage of these trade agreements into law."