The Monitor's View

The real issue on free trade

It's not whether to lower barriers with Colombia but how to help US workers adjust.

Two different debates on free trade are raging in America. One is on whether to curb or expand trade, such as under a proposed trade pact with Colombia. The other is how to cope with it. Which debate is the real one?

Looking only at headlines, it would appear free trade itself is the issue of import, so to speak, rather than how to help workers deal with an already globalized economy.

During primary contests in union-heavy states such as Pennsylvania, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are competing to promise trade protection to workers, even saying they would renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. And this week, President Bush sent the Colombia trade pact to Congress which, under law, has 90 days to reject or approve the measure. Some lawmakers say passage is impossible.

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In both these cases, reality is something else.

Unless the United States now turns on its history of openness and starts withdrawing from the world, it's a bold assertion to say the Colombia pact will not pass. Congress has never rejected a free-trade pact, including one last year for Peru. And for good reason. America's ability to compete globally has made it the world's largest exporter and one of the wealthiest nations per capita.

The pact will add to that record by reducing barriers for US exports to a key South American country – one now besieged by leftist narco-terrorists supported by Venezuela's Castro-like leader. Colombia already enjoys much tariff-free access to US markets and has made big progress in its democracy and in suppressing drug cartels, curbing right-wing militias, and reducing the killing of labor activists.

Rejecting the pact would be a slap at Latin America and a signal to US Hispanics of Yankee antipathy to the US backyard. Democrats would also be ending their party's free-trade legacy (including Bill Clinton's) and failing to boost the US economy when it's needed.

In addition, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are denying their own past advocacy for free trade by their stump rhetoric. One contradiction between what they say and what they believe was made clear when they were each forced to let a top campaign aide "resign" after being caught advising other countries (Canada and Colombia) on trade.

The real debate isn't free trade or how to force other countries to adopt US standards on unions and the environment. If Congress really wanted to impose such conditions on the rest of the world, it could simply threaten trade barriers at any time against other countries. It doesn't.

No, in the back halls of Congress, the real debate is, and should be, over how much to help workers who lose jobs after government lifts trade protection in certain US industries. The current program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, is underfunded and not well focused to keep up with the rapid shift to a higher-skilled economy. More money is needed to retrain such workers for new types of jobs. Congress also must provide a higher tax credit for healthcare coverage during these workers' transitions.

These are the issues that now divide lawmakers. If both parties would compromise, they could then live up to their free-trade traditions and help workers cope with a globalized world as it is and not try to turn back the tide of trade.

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