Hostage to free trade

Unless common sense prevails, the House Democratic leadership may have killed the Colombian free trade agreement and torpedoed pending trade agreements with Panama and South Korea as well.

The Democrats seem to have no great objection to the Colombia agreement in and of itself, although their allies in organized labor do. Instead, they want to use a vote on the agreement as a bargaining chip for other Democratic priorities, such as expanded children’s health insurance, extended unemployment insurance, and training and assistance for workers who lose their jobs because of foreign trade.

But President Bush has never been accommodating on those issues before and with just nine months left to go in office has no reason to now. Thus Congress has administered a nasty rebuff to perhaps the most pro-United States country in Latin America.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t think the treaty would have passed. Others think maybe it would have. In any case, it would have been worth giving a Democratic free trader like House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel a chance to try.

The mechanism Pelosi chose is to stop the legislative clock that began ticking this week when President Bush sent the agreement to Congress. The House has 60 days to vote on the treaty and the Senate has 30 days after that.

The timetable is part of fast-track trade promotion authority which expired last year and which Congress should renew, if not for Bush at least for the next president. The authority requires Congress to vote up or down on trade agreements and is intended to stop the lawmakers from trying to rewrite already agreed upon treaties. Even so, this particular treaty has already been rewritten once to accommodate congressional demands for stricter labor and environmental standards.

Free trade has become an emotional and greatly distorted issue in the Democratic primary campaigns, particularly in the Rust Belt. Therefore it’s worth noting that this treaty would benefit us more than the Colombians. Under an annual agreement, their goods enter the U.S. tariff-free. Under this agreement, our goods, now taxed as high as 35 percent, would enter Colombia the same.

The White House was only slightly overstating it when press secretary Dana Perino said countries “will not be able to have faith in our word when we’re negotiating trade deals.” Since the Democrats took over Congress, Bush has been able to frustrate almost all their legislative priorities. But in their desperation for some kind of small triumph over Bush, the Democrats risk sabotaging our standing in Latin America.