Congress on Wednesday passed three long-awaited free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia that have languished since the Bush administration but could now boost exports by $13 billion and create 250,000 new jobs.
“This gives us a level and equal playing field,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “If you’re standing still on trade, you’re falling behind,” Ryan said.
In a rare show of bicameral bipartisanship, the measures passed the House and the Senate in a matter of hours without either chamber grinding to a halt.
But Republicans still voiced their frustration that it took the Obama administration years to send the documents to Congress for ratification.
“There’s no reason we should have had to wait nearly three years for this President to send them up to Congress for a vote, but they’re a good start nonetheless,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.)
“With these trade agreements, we’re showing we can work together to create jobs and help the economy. We can—and must—do more of it,” McConnell said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R.-Ohio) said that it’s time for both parties to “work together to help create a better environment for job growth in our country.”
“We’re going to continue to work with the President in order to create a better environment. Not everything the President outlined is something that we agree with. But our job on behalf of the American people is to find common ground and to do our best for them, and we will continue to do that,” Boehner said.
The U.S. already has free trade agreements with 17 countries, but Democrats argued that only corporations would benefit and criticized poor working conditions and violence against unions in Colombia in their opposition to the agreements.
“I find it deeply disturbing that the United States Congress is even considering a free-trade agreement with a country [Colombia] that holds the world record for assassinations of trade unionists,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.). Rep. Jim McDermott (D.-Wash.) said many Democrats opposed the measures because “we believe in workers’ rights and we believe in human rights in this place,” and the trade agreements didn’t include any demands for Colombian workers.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R.-Fla.) called the Democrats’ argument “an offensive caricature of Colombia.”
“A place that is fighting for democracy and freedom and due process—we should be recognizing it and thanking them and commending them for being such a good allies,” Diaz-Balart said.
Republicans argued that the goal of the agreements was to eliminate the costly tariffs and keep America competitive internationally.
However, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa issued a statement saying the free-trade agreements had sparked the Occupy Wall Street protests and that a vote for any of the agreements was “a vote against American workers.”
“These deals are nothing but giveaways and protections for the multinational corporations that Americans are protesting on Wall Street and in dozens of other cities,” Hoffa said.
All three measures passed by wide margins in both chambers: On the trade agreement with South Korea the House voted 278 to 151, the Senate 83 to15. On the Panama agreement the House voted 300 to 129, the Senate 77 to 22, and on the agreement with Colombia, the House voted 262 to 167, the Senate 66 to 33.
“This is not about labor conditions in Colombia … South Korea and Panama. This is about products American workers make and whether they can get into those markets or not,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.).
Rep. Allen West (R.-Fla.) said the agreements would eliminate tariffs on exports and imports and remove many burdens placed on American companies that will allow them to compete in a free market.
“[It] will result in thousands of new American jobs, provide increased economic security and unleash a wave of investment and confidence among our small and medium-sized businesses,” West said.
Added Rep. Ben Quayle (R.-Ariz.), “We live and work in a global economy. These agreements ensure that we don’t continue to lose market share to our economic competitors, which leads to lower exports and fewer American jobs.”
Congress wanted to pass the trade agreements in conjunction with the official state visit of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who will speak before a joint session of the lawmakers this week.