Houston's Stake In Pending Congressional Free Trade Votes

President Obama plans to send the Bush-era Free Trade Agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for ratification next month. From the KUHF Business Desk, Andrew Schneider reports on how much Houston has at stake in the FTAs' passage.

The Port of Houston has a rare distinction. Unlike most major U.S. ports, it exports more than it imports. That’s been a big boost to the local economy at a time when the rest of the country is still mired in slow growth.

Over the past few years, Korea, Panama and especially Colombia have all stepped up their business with the city, even though the U.S. has yet to ratify the trade agreements it signed with them under President Bush. But there’s a growing concern the three trading partners may be running out of patience. Gabriel Silva is Colombia’s ambassador to the U.S..

“Colombia’s a close friend and Colombia wants to remain a very close friend of the U.S., and that’s why the first FTA we signed was the one with the U.S.. And we waited and waited for almost five years now, and the Colombian people are losing their faith that this is a special partnership.”

Colombia just concluded a trade agreement with Canada. That will eat into Texas’ exports of everything from beef to energy services.

“More than 1300 companies based in Texas export to Colombia, and because of the delay in the FTA, they have been paying tariffs that they shouldn’t be paying, and that’s been affecting their ability to expand their market in Colombia.”

Colombia’s not the only trade partner that’s looking elsewhere while the U.S. dawdles. Houston GOP Congressman Kevin Brady chairs the House Trade Subcommittee.

“Europe has stepped forward ahead of America in taking a great deal of our sales in Korea, and we’re losing jobs and market share already.”

For years, free trade has become an increasingly partisan issue on Capitol Hill, with Republicans supporting FTAs and Democrats in opposition. Democrat Gene Green represents a House district that includes the Port of Houston.

“Typically these free trade agreements make it easier for companies to relocate overseas and then ship their product back to our country so we lose jobs. And even with the NAFTA agreement in ’93 — and even though Mexico’s a great neighbor and, you know, I can’t say too much good about them — we lost about six plants that moved from our district to Mexico.”

There’s more bipartisan support for free trade in the Senate. Democratic leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell announced an agreement just before the August recess that would move a vote on the treaties alongside one on Trade Adjustment Assistance — a program to help workers displaced by trade to find new employment.

The wild card, as in so much of politics today, is the Tea Party. During the 2010 congressional campaign, polls indicated a majority of Tea Party voters saw free trade deals as doing more harm than good. The Congressional Tea Party Caucus says its members’ positions on the issue vary widely. If the FTAs pass the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner may find himself in for a replay of the July fight over the debt ceiling, straining to pull in every Republican member to pass the agreements on a party line vote.

From the KUHF Business Desk, I’m Andrew Schneider. 

Bio photo of Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Business Reporter

Andrew Schneider joined KUHF in January 2011, after more than a decade as a print reporter for The Kiplinger Letter...