By sending the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Capitol Hill this week, the Bush administration triggered a 90-day legislative timetable for congressional consideration of the measure. In so doing, the White House was attempting to call the bluff of Democrats who do not want a vote on the deal.
By scheduling a vote to remove that timetable from the fast-track rule governing consideration of trade agreements, House Speaker Pelosi has further upped the ante.
Make no mistake about it: This is not a confrontation over the economic merits or human rights demerits of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Colombia is a good market for American exporters. And failure to pass the agreement might make other countries wary of trade deals with future administrations. At the same time, Colombia has dramatically cut the number of union leaders who are killed there.
But Colombia is economically insignificant for the United States. And union killings persist. Once this deal is passed, Washington’s leverage to further reduce such violence evaporates.
As much as the White House and congressional Democrats would like to make their looming confrontation one of substance over these issues, this is largely a political showdown, as today’s vote demonstrates.
On one side is a lame-duck administration determined to pad its legacy by winning approval for the deal. If the White House loses, Republicans can nevertheless gain electoral advantage by branding Democrats as protectionists in the fall campaign.
On the other side is the Democratic congressional leadership, which fears a vote on the Colombia accord because it knows the deal might pass. The two Democratic presidential candidates oppose the accord, but any vote would draw the support of some Democratic members, demonstrating the political rift over trade within the party.
Today’s vote will test Pelosi’s leadership skills. Whatever the outcome, this confrontation calls into question future hopes for bipartisanship on trade matters and it almost ensures a narrower fast-track trade negotiating authority for the next administration.
In this fight there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. Each side accuses the other of not negotiating in good faith.
The White House has chastised Congress for not holding hearings. But the administration has not asked for a “mock markup,” an informal process that has preceded every trade agreement under fast track. The White House broke the gentlemen’s agreement in fast-track legislation by sending the legislation to Capitol Hill without the leadership’s consent, as have Democrats by foot dragging.
This confrontation vitiates the trade deal struck May 10 by congressional Democrats and the White House. That agreement swapped congressional action on the Peru free trade agreement for administration acceptance of new safeguards in trade accords for labor and environmental standards. That bipartisanship will be hard to resurrect.
Today’s vote on the rule change is effectively a test vote on the Colombia bill. But it might attract more House Democrats if Pelosi can convince free-trade colleagues in her party that this is a vote to repudiate the administration’s attempt to embarrass Democrats before November, not a vote on substance.
It is also a test for organized labor. Earlier this year, the unions failed to pass reforms they sought in labor law. They didn’t get added unemployment benefits in the economic stimulus package. If the timetable survives and Colombia passes, the unions’ weakness will be evident.
But this confrontation could “damage the [fast-track] process far beyond the Colombia accord,” warned Mac Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland. Future congresses are going to be wary of giving administrations the right to force a vote under fast-track procedures.
Whatever happens today, the coming weeks will also test the sincerity of the administration’s support for an expanded trade adjustment assistance program. Administration officials have been talking about more benefits for workers displaced by trade to buy Democratic support for the Colombia deal. But the administration’s reported desire to narrowly define eligibility suggests it still opposes real expansion of aid to the half million Americans who lose their jobs due to trade every year (with only 50,000 now getting TAA benefits).
The administration claims it is offering a great concession by finally allowing some service workers to qualify for TAA. The devil will be in the details. If the number of service workers who could actually qualify for aid is small, any deal will be a sham. It will suggest that the administration doesn’t really mind if it loses on Colombia, it prefers a campaign issue.
As longtime trade watcher Chris Nelson wrote recently in his Washington insider newsletter, the Colombia confrontation is shaping up as “one of those fascinating, nasty, and sometimes suicidal fights where substance, process and principle get all wrapped around the axle of politics to the point where adult supervision becomes as difficult as it is badly needed.”
It need not have come to this. And prospects for additional trade liberalization agreements now look dim.
This article appears in the April 12, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily.