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U.S. free trade accords face rocky road

With elections and economic woes, congressional approval of foreign trade accords will be an uphill battle.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2008


A fresh battle is brewing in Washington over foreign trade, with the White House persevering in its pursuit of free trade agreements while congressional Democrats – some elected two years ago on protectionist planks – appear more inclined to take up trade issues with China than pass new deals.

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President Bush is ramping up efforts to get Congressional approval of free-trade agreements (FTAs) already negotiated with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

Late last month, he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Colombia, with a bevy of House Democrats in tow, to renew the push for the Colombia accord, invoking national security interests over economic ones for the agreement.

But with January producing gloomy employment figures and with Democratic House and Senate freshmen looking to toughen trade rules that they can then take to voters in November, the road to any FTA approval appears steep at best.

"We need to call a time out on passage of any more trade agreements," says Tim Schlittner, an aide to US Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill).

Describing Mr. Hare's western Illinois district of farmland and small manufacturing as "ground zero for the negative effects of those deals," he says Hare and other members of the House Trade Working Group want to see improved trade adjustment assistance to workers and action on China trade issues before any new free-trade agreements are considered by Congress.

Yet even as some Congress members raise red flags over free trade's negative impact on US workers – and in some cases, consumers – pro-trade forces warn that a failure to ratify negotiated agreements would alarm US partners.

It could also send new shivers through the global economy, they add – by suggesting, for example, that current multilateral trade negotiations may be doomed.

"We'll either decide we're still going on the path towards openness, or to reject them [the pending FTAs] will be a very strong signal the US is turning its back on the world," says Phillip Levy, an international trade expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a recent senior trade economist on the President's Council of Economic Advisers.