WASHINGTON - In a rare show of unity, the House and Senate approved three foreign trade agreements that have languished for years. The deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are expected to add $13 billion per year to U.S. exports and to create tens of thousands of jobs.
The action came as good news for Minnesota's agriculture and medical technology industries. Both sectors should enjoy increased sales from the removal of import limits and fees on American-made products and services. Economists say the state has 60,000 existing manufacturing jobs that are supported by exports. That number should at least remain stable and possibly grow because of the trade deals.
"As the most concentrated center of medical device innovation in the world, Minnesota stands to benefit greatly from these agreements and our member companies will have clearer paths to deliver affordable technologies that will continue to improve global health," said Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of LifeScience Alley and the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.
"Cargill added 1,000 American jobs per year after the last big trade bills" said Devry Boughner, director of international business relations for the Minnesota-based agribusiness giant. Cargill lobbied hard for the trade package that passed on Wednesday, Boughner said, because opening global markets is what the country must do "for the U.S. to add jobs."
The margins in favor of all three agreements, plus a bill to help workers whose jobs are displaced by foreign trade, were overwhelming and bipartisan, although opponents complained that the deals will cost more American jobs than they create.
Displaced workers assistance easily passed the Senate last week. It passed the House 307-122 on Wednesday.
The South Korea deal, by far the largest of the trade agreements, passed the House 278-151 and the Senate 83-15. The smaller deals with Colombia and Panama passed the House 262-167 and 300-129, respectively. In the Senate, the vote was 77-22 for the Panama pact and 66-33 for the Colombia agreement.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken voted for the South Korea deal. Klobuchar voted for the Panama pact and Franken against it. Both voted against the Colombia pact. Last week, they both voted for displaced workers assistance.
"South Korea is already a top-five market for both Minnesota agriculture products and U.S. medical equipment," Klobuchar said. "The Korea agreement will benefit Minnesota farmers and workers. ... The Panama agreement also presents new opportunities for Minnesota manufacturers and their workers." The Colombia agreement did "not do enough to address the country's endemic corruption."
Franken complained of ongoing corruption in Panama and labor and human rights violations in Colombia, but praised the Korean deal.
"Under this agreement, we will see trade barriers fall and exports of Minnesota corn, pork, soybeans and other farm products rise. For manufacturers, it will expand market access for Minnesota-made machinery, chemicals and medical devices,'' Franken said. "And perhaps most importantly, this expanded trade will create more jobs and economic development in Minnesota, something that is critically important right now."
Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., called the trade agreements the biggest move in foreign trade in 15 years. "These trade agreements will open new markets for Minnesotan and American workers, farmers and small businesses to sell their goods and services to new customers," said Paulsen. "I look forward to working with the president to implement these pacts so we can create jobs here at home and get our economy back on track."
Minnesota's other Republican representatives -- John Kline, Michele Bachmann and Chip Cravaack -- joined Paulsen in voting for all four measures.
All four Minnesota Democratic representatives voted for displaced workers assistance, but they split on support of the trade bills. Collin Peterson voted for Korea and Panama but not Colombia. Tim Walz voted for Korea but not Panama or Colombia. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum opposed all three deals.
"At a time when our national unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent, with 14 million Americans looking for work, we cannot afford to pass trade agreements that cost jobs here in the United States," McCollum told her colleagues in a floor speech.
The International Trade Commission has said that the trade deals could cost American jobs in the textile, apparel and electronic equipment industries. But the commission has said the deals will create enough new American jobs in agriculture, meat production and medical technology to offset those loses.
That didn't convince Ellison. "My service to the Minnesotans of the Fifth District focuses on four key priorities: peace, working class prosperity, environmental sustainability and human rights," he said. "Sadly, these trade deals fail on every score."
Supporters of the trade bills, including President Obama, say they will help the economy recover in the long term. In the near term, White House officials are pushing the president's American Jobs Act.
That legislation remains mired in partisan bickering.
The trade bills, meanwhile, signaled congressional unity on an economic issue for the first time in a long time.
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752