Obama Administration Takes Credit for Job-Creating Trade Deal, As Republicans Ask What Took So Long

By Patrick Goodenough | March 16, 2012 | 4:26 AM EDT

President Obama signs the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act, in the Oval Office on October 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Thursday’s entry into force of a free trade pact with South Korea “another example of this administration’s commitment to deepening our economic engagement throughout the world.”

But a leading Republican lawmaker pointed out that the administration had for years held back on finalizing and submitting the job-creating agreement to Congress, because of opposition from special interest groups.

The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the biggest deal of its kind for the U.S. since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, scraps tariffs immediately on 80 percent of industrial and consumer goods, rising in five years to 95 percent of products traded between the two countries.

Proponents expect it to boost exports by billions of dollars a year and create 70,000 jobs in the U.S. from increased exports alone. KORUS is also seen to offer important geopolitical benefits for the U.S. in a strategic part of the world.

But the free-trade agreement, first signed by the Bush administration in June 2007, has been held up for years -- according to the Obama administration, because it had inherited from its predecessor an inadequate deal that needed fixing; and according to conservatives, because of labor-driven protectionism.

On Thursday, Clinton hailed KORUS as “an historic milestone,” thanked South Korea’s Lee “for his leadership on this issue” – and took credit on behalf of the Obama administration.

“KORUS will provide new market access opportunities in Korea’s dynamic trillion dollar economy for U.S. exporters, creating jobs here at home while increasing opportunities for Korean companies in the United States,” she said in a statement.

“This agreement is another example of this administration's commitment to deepening our economic engagement throughout the world.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a strong supporter of KORUS, also welcomed its entry into force, but decried the time that had been allowed to pass.

“There is no reason this day could not have come three years ago,” she said. “Unfortunately, because of pressure from special interests, the administration delayed sending this job-creating pact to Congress for years.  Our workforce and businesses have unnecessarily suffered as a result, and I hope they can quickly make up for lost time.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which championed KORUS from the outset, also welcomed its arrival.

Two container ships pass each other in San Francisco Bay. Experts say the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement will boost exports by billions of dollars a year and create 70,000 American jobs. (Photo: NOAA America’s Coastlines Collection)

“Today is the day the entire business community has been waiting for: the implementation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement,” said an entry on the Chamber’s Free Enterprise blog.

“It will take America’s partnership with Korea to the next level and open a new era of cooperation and growth for our two countries.”

When campaigning for the presidency, then-Senators Clinton and Barack Obama both opposed KORUS, with Obama calling it “badly flawed” and Clinton describing it as “inherently unfair.”

Once in office Obama shifted, pledged to improve the pact, and reopened negotiations with the South Koreans.

The U.S. business community largely supported the agreement while labor unions and some automakers continued to object to various aspects, including its treatment of autos and beef. Opposition in Congress came largely from Democrats.

At one point in late 2010, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that, since the European Union and other trading partners were lining up with free-trade deals with South Korea, failure to get the stalled KORUS underway quickly was putting more than 300,000 American jobs at risk. (The E.U.-South Korea FTA took effect last July.)

After drawn-out negotiations, and some missed deadlines, Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Dec. 2010 announced agreement on outstanding issues.

Although Obama used his State of the Nation address the following month to push for progress on KORUS – along with long-pending FTAs with Colombia and Panama – he did not submit them to Congress until last October, much to the frustration of Republican supporters.

Once the FTAs were finally submitted, it took the House and Senate just six working days to consider and approve all three by comfortable margins – although with more Democrats opposing than supporting the measures in the House. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voted against all three.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka responded to the votes by calling the FTAs “the wrong medicine at the wrong time,” charging that they “put corporations over people and profits over prosperity.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow