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Will Colombia FTA Gambit Succeed?

Will the Bush Administration plan to unilaterally submit the Colombia FTA to Congress pay off? Four experts share their views.

Inter-American Dialogue

The Bush administration has announced its intention to submit implementing legislation for the US-Colombia free trade agreement, which would start the 90 legislative day clock applicable under Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) procedures very shortly after Congress reconvenes in late March. This would be the first time a TPA-eligible implementing bill has been introduced over the objections of congressional leadership. Would such a gambit pay off? Or would it backfire and undermine the prospects for the trade pact?

John Magnus, Of Counsel in the International Trade Group at Miller & Chevalier and former Chair of the American Bar Association's International Trade Committee: The gambit may not succeed, but is worth trying if no agreement is reached by the time Congress reconvenes. TPA cedes to the president two powers on trade agreement implementing bills normally guarded jealously by the parliamentary majority: to determine what bill text will be voted on and when (at least within what session of Congress) the vote will occur. Presidents have never used the second power. Now it appears that to avoid shelving the Colombia deal, the president will have to do so. TPA itself is fragile. As an adjustment to the normal debate rules, it can be pulled back at any time if the Senate or House chooses not to adhere to the bargain struck. But Congress has promised to apply these special debate rules to implementing legislation for an agreement negotiated and presented in accordance with TPA requirements. Repudiating that promise—even though it was made by a prior Congress under different party control—would be a grave act not justified by any circumstances specific to the Colombia deal. Opposition, whether based on dissatisfaction with the deal itself or a conviction that Colombia is an undeserving FTA partner, should be expressed through votes against the implementing bill. Going beyond that, and depriving the bill of TPA protections, would stigmatize the Congress as an unreliable partner in trade initiatives.

Jeff Vogt, Global Economic Policy Specialist at the AFL-CIO: The Colombia FTA is already a very unpopular agreement. Forcing a vote over the objection of House leadership would only serve to push those that may be predisposed to support the trade agreement to oppose it for failure to properly consult Congress. In any case, the labor movement will strongly oppose the agreement should it be submitted to Congress.

Enrique Gómez-Pinzón, Partner at Holland & Knight LLP: The Bush administration's announcement of its intention to submit implementing legislation for the US-Colombia free trade agreement is a clear and unequivocal response of support to a close ally—the only real close ally the US has in the northern part of South America. The Bush administration and many US legislators also believe that a free trade agreement with Colombia is clearly in the United States' best interests. However, the political madness over 'free trade' has made it extremely difficult if not impossible to have Congress approve a free trade deal. Hopefully, local politics does not harm the US' best interests. The crusade that the Bush administration has carried on by accompanying several congressional delegations to Colombia to see the achievements of the Uribe administration first hand may pay off. A negative message will undoubtedly undermine Uribe's fight against drugs and terrorists, and will not allow US exports to get into Colombia without duties—while Colombian exports are already entering the US without duties under ATPDEA. A negative would also embolden Colombia's anti-US neighbors, which have repeatedly blazed the anti-free trade populist arguments. So the gamble is high, but it is worthwhile.

Mac Destler, Director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland: At first glance, it seems a reckless gamble. TPA has always operated by interbranch consensus. The law does give the president the power to send the Colombia implementing bill down and force the House and Senate to vote. But his doing so in the face of leadership resistance could simply give congressional Democrats one more reason to vote against this FTA. Worse, it could cause them to rewrite the rules of the House or the Senate to deny at least this FTA the benefit of expedited, no-amendment consideration. This would damage the TPA process far beyond the Colombia accord. A more positive outcome is possible, however. Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent remarks suggest a deal: enhanced Trade Adjustment Assistance and some further Colombian protection of trade unionists, in exchange for leadership acquiescence in a vote on the Colombia FTA. But the clock is ticking, and soon there will be fewer than 90 legislative days remaining—allowing Congress to simply let time run out. And many—perhaps most—congressional Democrats would prefer to have no vote at all on Colombia this year. By threatening unilateral action to send the bill down, the administration is both declaring this outcome unacceptable and increasing the pressure for interbranch negotiations. A win-win agreement could result. But the administration should not move unless it sees good odds of bringing this about.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter. 


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