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July 21, 2009

USTR Misleads the Public on the Status of Unimplemented Free Trade Agreements

[Editorial note: This post is written by guest blogger Steve Charnovitz. The views expressed herein are solely those of the individual contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Public Citizen.]

Although President Obama claims to be for "free and fair" trade, he and his Administration have made no progress in securing the implementation of the three already-negotiated U.S. free trade agreements (FTAs) with Korea, Panama, and Colombia.

Yet while I can understand how the Administration would continue to sit on these agreements, since Obama campaigned against trade during the election, I do not understand why USTR seeks to misrepresent the status of these FTAs in the American political process.

The US-Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed on June 30, 2007. Neither President Bush nor Obama have sent “the final legal text of the agreement” plus implementing legislation to the Congress pursuant to Section 2105 of the Trade Act of 2002. Nevertheless, the USTR website states that the status of this agreement is “Pending Congressional Approval.” Obviously, this USTR statement is untrue. Before Congressional approval can occur, President Obama will need to formally send an implementing bill to the Congress along with a copy of the FTA. That discretionary Presidential action has not occurred, and so it is incorrect for USTR to suggest that any action on the FTA is now “pending” in the Congress.

The US-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement was signed on June 28, 2007. The status of the Panama FTA is the same as the Korea FTA, that is, the agreement continues to collect dust on the shelf within the Executive Branch. No implementing legislation has been sent to the Congress. Nevertheless, the USTR website states that the status of the Panama agreement is “Pending Congressional Approval.” Again, the USTR website promulgates a falsehood.

The US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement was signed on September 22, 2006. A protocol of amendment was signed later to make changes in the agreement to accommodate new U.S. demands on labor, environment, investment, and other issues. The revised agreement was sent to the Congress by President Bush with implementing legislation. I discussed this sad episode in my blog posting of December 14, 2008, “The Bush-Schwab Policy on the Colombia FTA Has Failed.” Because the implementing legislation sent by President Bush expired at the end of the 110th Congress, that legislation is no longer pending in Congress. To my knowledge, no one has introduced it in 2009. Nevertheless, the USTR website states that the status of the Colombia agreement is “Pending Congressional Approval.".

On July 17, 2009, I attended a presentation by Larry Summers, the Director of the White House National Economic Council. During the Q&A session, I asked Dr. Summers about the status of the three pending FTAs. He responded:

“There are particular issues with respect to each of the regional -- each of the agreements that you referred to that need to be worked through. But at the appropriate point on the political calendar, if the appropriate steps can be taken, we would very much like to see those agreements completed, as we would very much like to see the Doha Round brought to a successful conclusion.”

Read his full answer to my question about trade.

So as of July 17, it was clear that the Administration still sees “particular issues” barring each of the three FTAs that “need to be worked through,” with “appropriate steps” taken before those agreements can be “completed.”

In summary, the statement on the USTR website that the three agreements are “pending Congressional approval” is an example of the way that the Obama Administration seeks to evade responsibility for its own actions and inactions. The website should say that the status of each of these agreements is “Pending a Decision by the President To Send It To the Congress." That would be the most transparent and honest thing to tell the public.

As a result of this posting on “Eyes on Trade,” I predict that USTR will correct the misrepresentation about the FTAs on their website. I hope that they do so soon and will be watching to see how long it takes.

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