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Democrats Look To Pull A Fast One On Trade Rules

In early April, President Bush placed the U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact in the hands of Congress, which under “fast-track” rules then had 90 days to provide an up-or-down vote

In early April, President Bush placed the U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact in the hands of Congress, which under “fast-track” rules then had 90 days to provide an up-or-down vote on the measure.

It was both a policy and political stroke, and the move was contentious. The Bush administration sees passage as a crucial foreign policy and trade measure, while Democrats need to walk the shaky rope of catering to their anti-trade constituencies in an election year while acting against the wishes of the majority of Americans who support free trade.

Midweek, however, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that Democrats planned to suspend the required 90-day rule, an unprecedented move. She claimed that if voted on now, the measure would be defeated, a contention which, as Hillary Clinton might say, “requires a willing suspension of disbelief.” In fact, House Democrats voted Thursday (224-195) to change the rules and delay a vote on the U.S.-Colombia free-trade measure.

The truth is that the measure likely would pass, and its passage would be a supreme embarrassment during election season for the Democrats and their two presidential contenders. Both Clinton and Barack Obama, locked in a clawing death struggle for the Democratic nomination for president, have come out vociferously against the Colombia trade pact, citing human rights and labor concerns.

The fact is that a record $1.2 billion of U.S. ag products were shipped to Colombia in 2007. However, current tariffs between the U.S. and Colombia are one-sided, as 99.9% of Colombian food and ag exports enter into the U.S. duty-free while no U.S. ag exports to Colombia receive such duty-free treatment. Passage of the trade deal would mean that, upon implementation, more than 70% of U.S. ag products will immediately receive duty-free treatment, with the remaining tariffs eliminated within 15 years.

USDA Secretary Ed Shafer called Pelosi’s move: “bad for America's economy and most of all bad for American farmers.

“It’s time for the U.S. to be on a level playing field with Colombia,” Shafer says. “It's the right thing to do for America's economy and for American farmers."

Shafer says the fact Colombian food and ag products come into the U.S. with no duties whatsoever is due to the Andean Trade Preference Act, which has been repeatedly reauthorized by Congress.

“In fact, just last month, Congress passed this act by Unanimous Consent,” Shafer says. “Why is Congress willing to continue to allow Colombian products to enter the U.S. without tariffs but not willing to vote to have American exports to Colombia to go tariff free? I think that is a question Speaker Pelosi should answer.”

Meanwhile, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) calls the measure “one of the best-negotiated free trade agreements for U.S. beef to date.” NCBA says tariffs on U.S. Prime and Choice graded beef will receive immediate duty-free, quota-free access upon implementation of the agreement. Tariffs on all remaining beef products will be eliminated within 15 years.

NCBA says the U.S. has historically imported only a very minimal amount of pre-cooked beef products from Colombia – the most being $16,000 worth in 2006. Colombia isn’t eligible to export live cattle or fresh beef to the U.S. due to the presence of foot-and-mouth disease, a status that won’t change with passage of the U.S.-Colombia pact.

Meanwhile, the National Pork Producers Council condemned the House action on the 90-day requirement, calling it: “bad for American ag and business, bad for Colombia’s economic and political stability, and bad for the prospects of future trade agreements such as Korea and Doha.”

And the American Farm Bureau Federation said it was: “disappointed with the House Leadership’s decision to remove the timetable for consideration of the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. This decision will not only place a vote on the agreement in limbo, but it is a direct strike at the U.S.’s most important trade negotiating tool, Trade Promotion Authority.”