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The Colombia Trade Deal: A Different Kind of Jobs Bill

April 03, 2011

The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is not a partisan political issue. It is an accord in our national economic and foreign policy interests. After the two sides quickly conclude the current negotiations to address outstanding issues, it will be time for Congress to move the agreement without further delay.

Let’s be clear: Trade is critical to American innovation and economic growth. It can expand opportunity for workers and entrepreneurs, both at home and abroad.

Colombia is a prime example. The International Trade Commission estimates the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, or FTA, will increase U.S. exports by more than $1 billion a year. To the farmers and workers whose jobs these exports would help sustain, that’s much more than a statistic. To help our economy continue to recover, we should unite around a trade agenda that includes approval of this FTA and extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance for American workers.

Colombia is an important trading partner for American farmers, businesses and workers. But our exporters face a disadvantage because Colombia maintains tariffs on U.S. products while Colombian products have nearly complete access to U.S. markets.

U.S. farmers face an average tariff of roughly 30% in Colombia. U.S. manufacturers face an effective tariff rate of 14%. And nearly 90% of these manufacturers are the small and medium-sized businesses we count on to create jobs and continue moving our economy forward. The Colombia FTA will eliminate tariffs for U.S. exports and level the playing field.

But if we fail to act, we will continue to lose ground. Over the last two years, the U.S. share of Colombia’s corn, wheat and soybean imports dropped by more than 60%. Argentina has surpassed the United States as Colombia’s top supplier of agricultural products. China has tripled its share of the Colombian market and is now Colombia’s second-largest trading partner. And Colombia is signing trade agreements with countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas that further disadvantage U.S. exporters. Each day we fail to act costs American jobs and sales—and sends them elsewhere.

Passing the FTA is also good American foreign policy. It will cement a longstanding relationship with a strategic partner in South America. Building on lessons learned from our 10-year $8 billion collaboration under Plan Colombia, Bogota is providing counternarcotics assistance in Mexico and training Mexican police and judicial officers.

It is no secret that violence and labor rights concerns are the major reasons the Colombia agreement has stalled. These are concerns we share, and we are encouraged by Colombia’s progress. The International Labor Organization has removed Colombia from the list of countries that fail to comply with international labor standards. We commend President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to compensate the victims of violence and return confiscated land to poor farmers. And we applaud efforts to reduce homicides of union members, which Colombia reports have declined by nearly 90% since 2002. These are significant steps.

Make no mistake: The assassination of even one union member is unacceptable. The FTA will further Colombia’s progress by providing clear protections for fundamental labor rights. And those protections will be fully enforceable. In fact, the U.S.-Colombia FTA has far stronger labor provisions than the trade agreements that Colombia has signed with any other country, including Canada. We also believe that the Colombians want to reduce violence further and using our collective energy and efforts, we will.

Beyond our negotiations on the FTA and trade, we encourage Colombia to continue its efforts to promote justice and national reconciliation by investigating and prosecuting human-rights abuses. And the investigation of past abuses of the presidential intelligence agency should continue.

In addition to the FTA, we must take other steps to strengthen our economy here at home, including renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, which expired in February. TAA helps our economy in the short term by providing assistance to American workers in industries affected by global trade. And it helps avoid layoffs by assisting trade-distressed companies retool and become more competitive.

TAA also pays dividends over the long term because it retrains workers for the 21st century economy—empowering workers to enroll in community college or earn a bachelor’s degree in growing fields like health care and cutting edge industries like high-tech manufacturing. Simply stated, TAA puts people in Massachusetts, Montana and across the nation back to work.

There is support on both sides of the aisle for TAA and for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. But we will not realize the jobs and opportunities that the Colombia agreement and TAA have the potential to create if Washington fails to act. We need to restore a broadly shared bipartisan consensus on trade. We cannot do that if we do not treat our friends in the hemisphere with the respect they deserve as neighbors and allies, or if we ignore the needs of American workers adjusting to an increasingly globalized economy. It’s time for Congress—and our country—to get back in the game.

Mr. Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Mr. Kerry is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.