During a contentious mid-week hearing, House Republicans grilled U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk in a bid to pull more details from the Obama Administration on its expected movement on stalled trade deals with Columbia and Panama. It was an exercise in futility despite Kirk’s highly anticipated appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee, reportedly his first appearance ever before the House in his entire two years as trade envoy for the Administration. While that glaring fact added tension to the Committee chamber, Kirk’s tight lipped demeanor did not help the situation any as he refused to offer a timeline for completion of the pending deals.
“The president has made one thing abundantly clear: we will not sign agreements for agreements’ sake. They must be enforceable and of the highest standard, in the interests of our workers, farmers and businesses,” said Kirk during opening remarks to the Committee.
But, the clock keeps ticking, literally, on the Administration’s submission of the deals to Congress for final approval. On the House Ways and Means website, Republicans have embedded a real-time Columbia trade ticker which counts the number of days since the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed – without Congressional approval. Below it is a running money widget that estimates the amount of estimated tariffs imposed on U.S. exports to Columbia since the FTA was signed. The FTA would eliminate those tariffs.
“The time for generalities has passed,” House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) shot back. “We need specifics…These [trade deals] have languished long enough.”
Characterizing it as a lack of commitment on trade from the Obama Administration, Camp was forceful in his questioning of Kirk, demanding a timeline of when Congress should expect submission to Congress. “Where is the roadmap for these agreements? Why isn’t there a clear identification of the outstanding issues, an outline of reasonable steps that must be taken to address those issues, a timeframe for resolution, and a commitment to action?”
“As I have said repeatedly, I would like to see all three agreements considered by July 1.”
Another Republican Member, Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA), jumped into the conversation hoping to coax commitments out of Kirk, to no avail. He pointed to previous statements on the record by Kirk and other Administration officials who promised submission to Congress some time ago since the trade deals were entered into two years ago.
“How much longer do we have to wait for the Colombia agreement?” Herger inquired.
“Hopefully, it won’t be much longer. We share your concern,” responded Kirk, clearly avoiding the question.
“But let me be clear: There remain serious issues to be resolved before the Colombia and Panama agreements can be submitted for Congressional consideration. Some of these issues go to core U.S. values and interests, such as the protection of labor rights,” argued Kirk, clearly signaling Administration reluctance to submit the deal due to concerns from union leaders and many Democrats opposed to what they decry as open-ended Bush-era trade deals without stringent conditions.
Any timetable will be contingent on the successful resolution of these issues. For example, with regard to Colombia, it will be imperative to resolve issues regarding laws and practices impacting the protection of internationally-recognized labor rights, as well as issues concerning violence against labor leaders and the prosecution of the perpetrators. Colombia and Panama have begun to take important steps, but more remains to be done. For this timetable to work, it will be critical for them to come to the table, prepared to take additional meaningful actions. We will be consulting closely with you and major stakeholders — including labor and human rights groups — throughout this process.
Ranking Democrat Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI) underscored Kirk’s stance on the concerns with Colombia, describing his recent trip to Colombia and talks with the new government there about persistent problems with labor rights violations.
“The new Santos administration has now articulated a different approach from its predecessor that provides an opportunity for serious discussions between the two governments on these concerns,” said Levin.