Trade talks

There was a time when Democrats realized that trade deals boosted the general prosperity. During the Clinton administration, many congressional Democrats were among the sponsors of free trade pacts.

But that was then. Today the Bush administration is working to get congressional votes on four pending free trade agreements covering Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea. But Democrats — curtseying to their backers in organized labor — have started to act like cats about to be given a bath.

“Prospects for all four deals brightened in May,” The Associated Press reports, “when the administration and Democrats in Congress reached agreement to include provisions in the measures to strengthen the protection of labor rights and the environment in answer to complaints that American workers were being subjected to unfair competition from low-wage countries. … But since that agreement, none of the free trade deals has passed Congress.”

The measure with Colombia is in peril because of Democratic complaints that Colombia’s government is not doing enough to prevent the killing of labor leaders trying to organize unions and to punish officials linked to right-wing paramilitary organizations. While Colombia’s regime is far from perfect, one wonders if Democrats would prefer one more like neighboring Venezuela.

The Korean deal, meantime, has supposedly been held up because of lawmakers’ concerns about Korean barriers to U.S. autos and beef.

Democrats’ real objections may become clear when the House Ways and Means Committee takes up legislation on Wednesday to overhaul what Democrats see as an outdated aid program intended to help workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., says the Trade Adjustment Act, set up in 1962, “has not kept pace with globalization.” He wants to expand the program to offer federal handouts to industries outside of manufacturing and also to ease eligibility requirements to allow workers in entire industries to be certified for assistance, rather than making the approvals on a company-by-company basis.

Shifts in the labor market can be traumatic. Workers may need some short-term help. That’s why every state mandates some form of unemployment insurance.

But if Rep. Rangel had been around and gotten his way a century ago, one wonders if we’d still be paying compensation to buggy-whip workers thrown out of work by the arrival of the motorcar.

Congress should bring the four trade deals to a vote. As Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says, “We don’t believe a strategy to run out the clock is the right thing to do with allies.”

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