At long last, three key free-trade agreements appear likely to be heard in Congress. President Obama, whose support for free trade often has seemed more rhetorical than substantive, finally has submitted trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress. Senate leadership has said it will push through approval of the three measures on Wednesday, just in time for South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's speech to Congress on Thursday.
Approval of these important agreements can't come soon enough. Free trade with the nation's key allies is a necessary ingredient for full economic recovery. While the United States has dithered on these agreements, Canada and other U.S. allies have stepped up their trade efforts and eroded the U.S. share of important markets. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated the South Korean agreement would increase U.S. exports by as much as $10.9 billion in the first year. The Colombia agreement would add $1.1 billion a year.
But trade is only one aspect of these deals. All three nations are in volatile strategic parts of the world. Colombia has been struggling with its own internal problems in a region where some would portray the United States as a partner that cannot be trusted. China, meanwhile, has made inroads into South Korean markets in the absence of an agreement with the U.S. Trade is an important aspect of diplomacy in these important relationships.
Unfortunately, all three agreements have been delayed by worn out and discredited 20th century arguments about the impacts of free trade. Union leaders have decried them as job-destroying deals, even as they have expressed concerns about poor working conditions in Colombia. Free trade, however, opens new markets to American products, which creates jobs. At the very least, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said the three agreements would prevent the loss of 380,000 U.S. jobs.
In addition, the agreements will provide U.S. consumers greater access to low-cost imports, boosting jobs in the partner countries. Ironically, Colombia already is free to export its products to the United States. The deal would only remove Colombian tariffs on U.S. products.
President Obama has said on several occasions that he understands this, including in his 2010 State of the Union speech. But union pressures have consistently led to his insistence that the agreements be tied to various jobs programs. House Speaker John Boehner finally agreed to consider a program to aid workers who lose their jobs due to foreign competition in tandem with the agreements.
That's a silly thing to do, considering all the jobs the three pacts will create. Still, as we said several months ago, this is one in which Republicans should give in. The cost of the assistance program would be more than offset by the economic benefits of free trade.