Dems Buck Tech Groups on Free Trade

A House vote removes the 90-day timetable for approval of the Columbia Free Trade Agreement.

The U.S. House of Representatives disappointed a number of IT trade groups April 10, voting 224-119 to indefinitely delay consideration of the Columbia Free Trade Agreement. The trade agreement was strongly supported by the Consumer Electronics Association; TechNet, the powerful lobbying group of technology CEOs; and CompTIA, the powerful Computing Technology Industry Association, which has more than 20,000 members in 102 countries.

The Bush administration negotiated the deal more than a year ago, but Congress has yet to officially approve the agreement. President Bush sent Congress enabling legislation for the trade agreement April 8, starting a 90-day clock for approval. But in a procedural move by House Democrats, lawmakers voted to remove the timetable.

"We should certainly do more for our economy before we pass another trade agreement," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. White House spokesperson Dana Perino said the vote would effectively kill the deal by delaying its consideration.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama oppose the trade agreement with Columbia, citing the Columbian government's harsh treatment of trade unions. Massachusetts Democrat Rep. James McGovern said during the floor debate that in the first 12 weeks of 2008, 17 Columbian trade unionists were assassinated. "When it comes to issues like human rights, I refuse to be a cheap date," McGovern said.

Under the trade agreement, approximately 80 percent of U.S. goods and services would receive tariff-free treatment in Columbia. Additional tariffs on technology products would be phased out over 10 years. Most Columbian goods entering the United States already receive tariff treatment.

Click here to read about why the trade deficit is mixed news for tech workers.

"In these times of economic uncertainty, the last thing we should do is reject a deal that advantages American workers and firms," Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, wrote in an April 9 letter to Congress. A spokesperson for TechNet said her group continues to strongly support free trade agreements, and in an e-mail to eWEEK, CompTIA said, "Like most FTAs, we're for it, even though it looks to see some tough sledding in Congress."

Shapiro added, "As we fight for the hearts and minds of the Colombian people, it seems unhelpful to use a procedural vote to delay consideration of an important trade agreement."

After the April 10 vote, Shapiro said in a statement, "With its action today, the House has sent an unfortunate message to the world that it doesn't believe that U.S. workers and businesses can compete in a global marketplace. Approval of this agreement is a no-brainer. It would create jobs and export opportunities for Americans in a time of economic uncertainty. Our politicians have forgotten that the American interest should trump politics."

Pelosi insisted that the removal of the timetable rests with Bush, who sent the enabling legislation to Congress against Pelosi's advice.

"I thought there was a risk, the President sending it to the Congress now," Pelosi said April 9. "If brought to the floor immediately, it would lose. And what message would that send? And so I thought there was everything to be gained about continuing our conversation. The President disagreed and sent it over yesterday."