- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2010

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama promised to double U.S. exports in five years. That’s both a tall order and a worthy goal.

In the coming days, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke is supposed to provide details on how to increase approximately $1 trillion in exports to $2 trillion by 2015.

For an administration that has done virtually nothing to expand trade opportunities, perhaps he should start with something simple. How about winning congressional approval for just one of the trade pacts we’ve already negotiated?

When Mr. Obama took the oath of office, he inherited three potential trade agreements that his predecessor had tried but failed to finalize. In his State of the Union speech, the president called quite clearly for Congress to ratify those accords with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Mr. Obama should pick one and push it through Congress. The Colombia and Panama pacts probably stand the best chance of success. They are relatively small and uncontroversial, except among Washington’s most stubborn economic isolationists. They are significantly less ambitious than the other trade goals Mr. Obama identified, such as completing the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks and negotiating a trade agreement with the nations of Asia.

They also are engines of job growth, which is a White House priority. Consider the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. A study by the U.S. International Trade Commission says it would boost American exports by more than $1 billion annually. The accord would level an unbalanced playing field, too. Right now, more than 90 percent of Colombia’s exports to the United States pay no tariff, whereas U.S. exports to Colombia face tariffs as high as 35 percent.

Farmers suffer from especially distorted trade relations. None of our agricultural goods can enter Colombia without paying a special tax, but most of Colombia’s food products can arrive in our grocery stores duty-free.

The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is ready for action today. So are similar accords with Panama and South Korea. All they require for approval is an up-or-down vote in Congress.

Scheduling just one of these votes would help bring back the bipartisanship Mr. Obama has identified as one of his goals for 2010. The day after his State of the Union address, a group of Republican senators wrote to him, warmly endorsing the trade goals he had just outlined.

“One concrete step to actually achieving the goal of expanding exports would be to implement our pending bilateral trade agreements,” they wrote.

We’ve come a long way from Barack Obama the presidential candidate, who pandered to protectionists when he talked about the possible need to “renegotiate” or even “opt out” of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama sounded like a man transformed by the imperatives of presidential leadership. “We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are,” he said. “If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.”

Now it’s up to Mr. Obama to make good on his words. Leaders must do more than talk. They must act. If Mr. Obama meant what he said about the importance of international trade, he’ll want to act very soon to make it easier for Americans to sell what they make and grow to consumers in other countries.

Terry Wanzek is a Republican member of the North Dakota state Senate and a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology.

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