by Sander M. Levin, United States House of Representatives
Prepared remarks delivered at a Peterson Institute for International Economics event
March 29, 2011
For weeks, we've heard the same call from a host of Republicans urging immediate action on every pending free trade agreement (FTA). Ironically, they are willing to hold up the most economically significant agreement—South Korea—until they get their way on all of the FTAs.
It's the same rhetoric that's been in place for years, even decades. And it reflects an outdated model of trade that fails to meet our greatest challenge in the 21st century:
The 1990s saw developing countries—with very different economic structures than our own—get into the act. The pace of globalization quickened and brought with it expanded opportunities and new challenges.
The conventional model—"free trade"—is based on the notion that nations are at very different levels of development and have advantages that make trade more attractive. More trade will work out to be complementary and invariably better, the theory goes, and when there's competition, the automatic response will be economic activity at a higher level.
Globalization has challenged the very premise of this model.
Now relations between economies shift very quickly. What was complementary can rapidly become competitive. The basis for competition can be quite quickly altered. A developing economy can become quickly competitive in key sectors, with similar products produced under very different conditions. Dominance in technologies can become overcome quite rapidly. Advantage can be dwindled (and sometimes swindled) in a short-time span. Business enterprises more and more are becoming multinational, shifting operations to nations other than their original base, and sometimes competing with operations in that base.
The Clinton Administration began to grapple with this new international economic dynamic. During the course of the Clinton presidency, I believe we began to see a shift in approach from the old model to a new model.
The Clinton administration negotiated a structure for China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). I was among those who felt that on balance it was better that China join the WTO as a step toward its acting within a rule-based structure. At the same time, it was vital that the granting of the necessary Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) recognize that China possessed a large, different economic structure, and PNTR must contain provisions to hold China to its commitments.
As a result I joined with Doug Bereuter to insert into PNTR several provisions to assist active enforcement of China's obligation to a rule-based system. These included an annual review at the WTO and a new safeguard to guard against import surges, as well as a Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
When President Bush took office, I urged his administration to build on this progress in developing a new model of trade for the globalized economy. Instead they turned back the clock and returned to the old model. Their perspective was a form of trickle-down trade economics where the assumption is that over time everything works out and adjusts.
As a result there was a strong tendency toward weak enforcement. The Bush administration allowed China to essentially nullify the effect of the provisions placed in PNTR by making a mockery of the WTO annual review and by refusing to act in four Section 421 cases where the International Trade Commission recommended relief to remedy harm caused by a surge of Chinese imports.
Also in a step towards a new model, the Clinton administration acknowledged the relationship between worker rights and trade and competition. They negotiated a ground-breaking textiles agreement with Cambodia that included positive incentives in the form of increased market access for Cambodian products when progress was made on worker rights, and the inclusion of worker rights in the core of the US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement.
But here again Republicans turned back the clock and reflexively dismissed the worker rights issue as "social issues" or as an issue basically of concern to US labor unions and thus a clash between American business and labor.
But this perspective misses the fundamental role of workers in a country's economic development. Workers must have basic rights if they are going to improve their financial standing and climb the economic ladder. This is not only vital to individuals and their families; it is critical to reducing poverty and the development of a country's middle class. Ironically it is an important route both to creating a robust domestic market and expanding trade. What's more, when we are integrating the US economy with that of a developing country, it is important to our businesses, which need consumers to buy their goods and services. It's important to US workers, who should not compete with workers whose rights are suppressed, or who are killed in the exercise of those rights.
The issue of including worker rights in trade agreements came to a head in negotiations of the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement.
The Bush administration had insisted in the 2002 Fast Track law that the standard for worker rights had to be "enforce your own law," no how matter how out of compliance a country's laws were with international standards.
During the CAFTA debate, I travelled to the region, visiting Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to get a first-hand look at conditions on the ground. It was apparent that none of the countries afforded workers their basic rights and enforcing existing labor laws would not fix the problem. Passage of CAFTA would more likely than not lock in existing economic inequality rather than help foster the growth of the middle class and all the benefits that are associated with such growth.
CAFTA was approved in the House by a two-vote margin—only after the 15-minute vote was held open for over an hour. A nearly united House Democratic Caucus stood in opposition to CAFTA with this "enforce your own law" standard and illustrated our recognition that international labor standards were one of the central points in the new model we were creating.
When we took the Majority in the US House in 2007 we insisted on changes in the labor, environmental, investment, and intellectual property sections of the pending FTAs.
As a result, the Peru FTA reflected a new model for trade:
Chairman Rangel and I were pleased to travel to Peru to work with President Garcia to confirm these changes. At the time, the Peruvian President stated that the amended FTA represented a "New Deal" for international trade.
When we completed work on the Peru FTA and announced our support for it, we made clear this did not indicate support for the Korea, Colombia, or Panama FTAs, as negotiated by the Bush Administration. Each had outstanding issues that needed to be resolved.
Let me first touch on Colombia.
Colombia is important to the United States. As is well-known, it is a major source of drugs in the United States. It has a democratically elected government in a vital part of Latin America—a region the United States has far too often neglected. And under Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) and Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) many Colombian goods are normally exported duty-free to the United States, while American companies face tariffs in that market.
In April 2009, and again in January of this year, I went on six-day fact-finding trips to Colombia. In over 60 meetings in Colombia, I had the chance to talk firsthand with business representatives, NGOs, and workers in a wide variety of fields as well as with an array of government officials at various levels, including top Colombian leadership.
These were some of the key facts:
In Colombia, where violence against workers has occurred for decades, there were considerably fewer murders and less violence, but still the highest levels in the world.
While there had been some progress in combating the wholesale impunity from punishment for crimes of violence, there had been limited progress even on the small number of cases that had been selected by consensus as key cases. For instance, as of July 2010, only three of the 42 union murders in 2008 had resulted in a conviction. The new Prosecutor General recently conceded, "the administrative disarray is terrible." Because there is no accountability, violence can persist.
As reported in State Department Reports and ILO findings, in the laws in critical areas and decisively in practice, workers are not able to exercise their basic international rights, in particular their right to organize and bargain collectively. Even when there is a union, under Colombian law employers can deal directly and enter into individual private contracts. And there has been a massive expansion by employers of creating so-called associated co-operatives, leaving the vast majority of workers without a voice in their workplace.
Throughout both trips, I met workers who were denied basic rights.
For several years, we made clear to the Colombian government that changes to its laws needed to be made to bring them into compliance with international standards including the areas discussed above before the FTA could be considered. Unfortunately, little action was taken by the Colombians during these years.
What is different now—very different—is that the Santos administration is expressing a determination to address conditions affecting the role of workers and their basic rights.
US-Korea Free Trade Agreement
Another key component of a new model of trade policy is active insistence on replacing one-way with two-way trade.
Korea has stood as one of the most closed markets to industrial goods in general and automotive in particular. The US trade deficit with Korea was persistently over $10 billion, 75 percent or more of which resulted from the automotive sector. Korean manufacturers of vehicles and parts had completely open access to the US market, but through use of ever shifting regulatory and tax measures and techniques, American manufacturers were shut out. Korean companies shipped 500,000 vehicles each year to the United States, while America shipped 1 percent of that total. There was a nearly total one-way street on other industrial products, including refrigerators.
We had made clear in constant discussions with the Bush administration that a bottom line must be tight provisions that would assure the opening of the Korean market for American manufacturing.
Specific ideas were dismissed as proposing "industrial policy." The irony is that it was Korea that had a comprehensive industrial policy—a policy that sheltered its markets so its producers could charge more without competition from the United States and use the profits to penetrate the American market.
There were pleas from Republican colleagues and many opinion makers that the FTA should be approved because other sectors, including agriculture and services, would benefit from more trade and that there were nontrade considerations, including the importance of South Korea as an ally. We acknowledged all of that.
What was at stake was best phrased in our discussions with the Obama administration by Ford CEO Alan Mulally when he said that effectively addressing the problems with the US-Korea FTA represented "a vital crossroads" for American trade policy.
The Obama administration has acted to bring this about in the revised US-Korea FTA.
The trade agenda for this Congress should be broad and ensure we go forward on the progress of a new 21st century model of trade, not backward.
It should include:
The Administration should hold its ground and insist on movement of each of the various pieces of the trade agenda only as they are ready for action. It is the Republicans who are holding up action on trade issues, not the administration. The approach by Republicans in Congress to hold action hostage has a number of additional detrimental consequences:
I believe that when historians look back, they will conclude that US trade policy was too slow to adjust to globalization. But I am determined not to let what happened in our trade policy toward Japan in the 1980s happen to our trade policy toward globalization in this decade. At that time, those of us who called for active attention to Japan's unfair trade practices were called proponents of "managed trade." We were told that it would all work out or that Japan was only hurting itself. Years later a US Treasury Secretary admitted to me that there should have been action but that now it was too late.
We were right then and we are right now. The old conventional wisdom about trade policy is outdated, and there is a new model—exemplified by changes to the Peru and Korea agreements—waiting to be seized.
Book: Economic Normalization with Cuba: A Roadmap for US Policymakers April 2014
Book: Understanding the Trans-Pacific Partnership January 2013
Policy Brief 12-21: How Can Trade Policy Help America Compete? October 2012
Book: The Long-Term International Economic Position of the United States April 2009
Op-ed: New Imbalances Will Threaten Global Recovery June 10, 2010
Op-ed: How Best to Boost US Exports February 3, 2010
Paper: Submission to the USTR in Support of a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement January 25, 2010
Working Paper 09-2: Policy Liberalization and US Merchandise Trade Growth, 1980–2006 May 2009
Policy Brief 09-2: Buy American: Bad for Jobs, Worse for Reputation February 2009
Paper: Report to the President-Elect and the 111th Congress on A New Trade Policy for the United States December 17, 2008
Op-ed: The Payoff from Globalization June 7, 2005
Book: American Trade Politics, 4th edition June 2005
Op-ed: Trade: An Opportunity About to Be Lost? May 20, 2011