The United States House of Representatives voted in favor of the free trade agreement with Colombia 262 to 167 on Wednesday. The Colombia Trade Promotion Act will be voted on by the Senate later in the day.
A chief proponent of the trade pact, Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Dave Camp (R-MI), argued that the U.S. could not afford to wait any longer to pass the FTA.
“Our exporters paid on average 11% in tariffs, $4 billion in unnecessary tariffs. This is a major economic opportunity. It is high time we took this up. We owe it to U.S. workers and we owe it to our exporters,” Camp asserted.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke of a level playing field for U.S. exporters. “This creates jobs. With respect to Colombia they have free access to our market, we don’t don’t have free access to theirs,” maintained Ryan.
Heavy opposition to the Colombia FTA came from Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI). He opposed the FTA because “there are extreme flaws in Colombian labor law” and added that work on labor conditions is long overdue.
Levin recently visited Colombia where he said he saw firsthand evidence of companies forcing employees to form “sham” cooperatives, thus reducing the company’s responsibility towards them.
The bill was sent to the Colombian Congress in late 2006 and approved in July 2007. Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed a review and approved the agreement in 2008.
However, despite efforts from then-President George Bush to push it through before the end of his term, Bush’s Democratic opponents blocked the bill, citing concerns over Colombia’s human rights record.
Since assuming power in 2009, President Obama has said he would push for approval of the CTPA – the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement – as long as Colombia offers concrete proof of improvements in its human rights and labor record.
Earlier this year, the U.S. and Colombia agreed on a Labor Action Plan to address concerns over assassinations, violence and intimidation against unionists and abuse of workers.
While it has been broadly welcomed, the plan has come under criticism from unions and human rights groups for failing to alter the situation on the ground.
The CTPA had also been delayed by partisan political squabbling in the U.S., most recently over the inclusion of a retraining program for workers displaced by trade.
If approved by the Senate, the agreement will eliminate trade barriers and tariffs, opening up access between U.S and Colombian markets for both goods and services.
Supporters of the deal claim it will boost exports and create jobs in both countries. However, critics argue it would wipe out small and medium scale farmers in Colombia due to competition from cheap, subsidized American agriculture, while in the U.S. workers would lose jobs to cheap labor in Colombia.
Former President Alvaro Uribe and current President Juan Manuel Santos have both energetically pursued approval of the deal, seeing it as a keystone economic policy and a symbol of the strength of their administrations’ relationship with the U.S.