- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Lawmakers yesterday examined the first two free-trade agreements negotiated and signed by the Bush administration as models for future pacts.

The administration sees the trade agreements with Singapore and Chile as templates for other deals. The votes will be the first formal tests of White House trade policy since Congress granted the president trade-promotion authority in August 2002.

The trade authority allows the White House to negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments.

President Bush signed the accord with Singapore in May, and his trade envoy inked the deal with Chile last week. Congress is expected to vote on them this year, possibly in the fall.

“They are the biggest U.S. free-trade deals since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed over 10 years ago,” said Rep. Philip M. Crane, Illinois Republican and Ways and Means trade subcommittee chairman, referring to the accord with Canada and Mexico.

The Singapore and Chile free-trade agreements cover goods and services and are designed to lower trade barriers while protecting company investments and intellectual property.

They are seen as models as the administration pursues pacts with 12 other nations.

“The Chile and Singapore agreements set examples for comprehensive, state-of-the art free-trade agreements,” Peter F. Allgeier, deputy U.S. trade representative, told the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

Republican leaders on trade issues in both houses of Congress praised the Bush administration for completing the pacts, and approval is expected.

“I think the prospects are good. I think there is a real chance for developing bipartisan support for both Chile and Singapore,” said John O’Leary, president of the Chilean American Chamber of Commerce and a former U.S. ambassador to Chile.

Still, lawmakers at yesterday’s hearing were quick to question specific aspects of the deals. Even Mr. Crane, who said he expects both to pass with strong bipartisan approval, faulted Singapore’s restrictions on chewing gum sales and the negotiators’ failure to address the issue.

Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin, top Democrat on the subcommittee, criticized immigration, labor and environmental components.

“While some of the provisions of the Chile and Singapore FTAs could serve as templates for other agreements, a number of provisions clearly cannot be,” he said.

Mr. Levin said provisions in the agreements would allow immigrants to stay in the country permanently under the guise of a temporary-visa program.

Labor and environmental issues have long been particularly troublesome for Democrats.

While Singapore and Chile have labor laws that embrace international standards, for example, precedents set by the agreements are considered inadequate for any deal with Central American nations, Mr. Levin said.

The administration is working toward a Central America Free Trade Agreement with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The U.S. government has cited instances of child labor and violation of labor rights in the region.

“They are examples, but we will not necessarily use each and every article” from the Singapore and Chile agreements in other pacts, Mr. Allgeier said.

Other countries formally engaged in free-trade agreement talks with the United States include South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland — members of the Southern Africa Customs Union — as well as Morocco and Australia.

The United States has agreements with Israel, Canada, Mexico and Jordan.

The new pacts are seen as part of a catching-up process as other countries sign free-trade agreements and, in some cases, their companies take U.S. market share. U.S. exports to Chile, for example, have declined since 1997 as that country reached agreements with the 15-nation European Union and several other nations.

Companies like Caterpillar have complained that their products, exported from the United States, face an unfair disadvantage because the United States has no pact to lower tariffs.

Governments in Singapore and Chile also must ratify the free-trade agreements.

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