Congressional Trade Vote Confuses And Disappoints

This month, Colorado’s congressional delegation voted unanimously to approve the Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which would relax trade regulations with the South American country, but questions linger over why four of the state’s seven House members supported the proposal after opposing a similar measure two years ago.On Nov. 8, the House of Representatives approved the Peru FTA by a vote of 285-132, with 16 Republicans and 116 Democrats opposing the measure.

The Los Angeles Times termed the vote “a rare victory for President Bush since Democrats took control of Congress,” as Democratic leaders joined the administration in pushing the legislation, a relative  of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which passed in 2005, and its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994.

Colorado’s House members voted unanimously in favor of the measure, but some state residents don’t understand why, because in 2005 four House members — Democrats Diana DeGette, John Salazar and Mark Udall and Republican Tom Tancredo — opposed CAFTA, a similar measure that relaxed trade regulations with a block of Central American countries, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

“It’s just a mystery,” says Reed Kelly, a cattle rancher operating outside of Meeker, Colorado, on the Western Slope, when referring to the House of Representatives’ vote on the Peru FTA.

Kelly joined the Western Organization of Research Councils, a rural advocacy organization based in Billings, Montana, to oppose the Peru agreement.

“I really can’t quite understand it,” Kelly says. “This is basically just an expansion of NAFTA and CAFTA, and if there were reasons to vote against CAFTA, those reasons are even greater for the Peru FTA.”

Trade agreements like NAFTA and its extension, CAFTA, are no stranger to controversy. Numerous organizations have opposed the measures due to their more relaxed labor, agricultural and environmental regulations, which have led to an outsourcing of jobs from the U.S. and allegations of workers’ rights abuses in places such as Mexico, among other issues.

Kelly says he’s personally experienced the effects of the government’s free-trade agreements on the ranching industry, where cheaper beef imports have marginalized beef producers on the Western Slope.

“There are a lot less of us in business,” Kelly says, claiming that it’s getting harder to afford hay costs for ranching because of the lowered prices for beef that have occurred under the agreements. Particularly, Kelly is concerned that with the passage of the Peru FTA, Brazil, a prominent beef producer, will be able to flood the market through Peru, due to inadequate rules on labeling a product’s country of origin.

Regarding the Peru vote, DeGette released a statement saying that “the Peru FTA is a step in the right direction of fairer trade. It offers a significant opportunity to raise the standard of living in Peru, with the agreement’s core labor and environmental standards, while opening markets for American products and companies.”

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also echoed the theme of improved standards, saying to legislators that “the Peru Free Trade Agreement rises to the level of acceptance. I am not saying it is perfect. It rises to the level of acceptance. Labor and environmental principles are in the core of the bill.”

But other groups remain unimpressed by the measure’s environmental and worker protections, claiming that they don’t go far enough.

“It’s worth nothing noting that the investment provisions and the types of language in Peru is almost word-for-word the same as CAFTA,” says Andrew Gussert, director of the Citizen Trade Campaign, a national coalition that was founded during the NAFTA debate and is opposed to the Peru FTA. “There were provisions in Peru on environmental language and labor standards that were an improvement over past models, but it’s kind of like putting new tires on a car that doesn’t run. We’re looking for a new model that will change the way that trade works. The failed CAFTA and NAFTA model just isn’t doing it.”

One of the major differences in the Peru FTA, Gussert says, was in internationally recognized language from the International Labor Organization, a specialized agency that is part of the United Nations, although Gussert claims that such language entails enforcement that is unlikely to happen.

“A lot of it depends on George Bush enforcing that language, and he hasn’t shown that he is going to enforce this in the past. We don’t expect he will now,” Gussert says.

Currently, the Peru FTA is awaiting action in the U.S. Senate, which could happen anytime before mid-December. The legislation is on a fast-track course in the Senate, meaning the proposal cannot be amended, and Gussert says he expects it to pass. Other trade agreements are also in the works for Colombia, Panama and Korea.

Kelly hopes that the voting will be different in regards to any future agreements and says that “to continue pushing on this agenda is to continually disregard the future of the American producer, whether it’s an agricultural producer or an industrial producer.”

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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