"[T]he price of power is moral responsibility."
Michael Gerson, Washington Post, November 7, 2007 (Read the article)
The US House of Representatives voted 285 to 132 this morning to pass the free trade agreement negotiated with Peru. More than 100 Democrats, including key members of the leadership voted for the agreement. But, despite Peru's willingness to renegotiate the labor and other provisions to address Democratic Party concerns that worker rights were not sufficiently protected, and to change its domestic laws to make them consistent with the FTA, a slim majority of Democrats voting still fell into the nay column (see the AP article). Meanwhile in the Senate, debate on a new farm bill stalled over technical issues related to what amendments would be considered germane, while Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a reform-oriented farm bill that no one thinks has a chance. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for in this case is that continued disagreements over who gets what in the farm bill and who pays for it will continue to stall passage, resulting in a short-term extension of the slightly less bad 2002 farm bill.
What ties these two debates together is how little attention is being paid to the spillover effects for much smaller, poorer developing countries. In yesterday's Washington Post, Harold Meyerson called on Democrats to vote down the Peru FTA on the grounds that doing so would address the anxieties that American workers feel about their living standards. But Peru already has nearly free access to the US market under existing preference programs and in any case accounts for a tiny share of US imports. Voting down the FTA would hurt our relations with Peru and increase uncertainty for Peruvian workers while doing nothing to help American workers.
On the same page of the Post, Michael Gerson made his passionate appeal for cutting cotton subsidies in the farm bill to help poor West African farmers that are harmed by the price-depressing effects of those subsidies. Unfortunately, no one in the US Congress appears to be listening. Passage of the Peru trade agreement is a welcome step forward, but the agreements with Panama, Colombia, and Korea continue to languish and the outlook for the farm bill suggests that US policy is about to take several steps back when it comes to developing countries and their concerns.