Shadow Government

Better late than never

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met today with President Obama at the White House to end an impasse blocking adoption of a trade agreement first concluded in November of 2006. The Colombian government has agreed to rewrite parts of their labor law to U.S. specifications.

The resolution came after mounting calls for movement from Capitol Hill. House Republicans had been particularly vocal about the need to advance the pending Colombia and Panama agreements alongside the South Korean accord after years of delay. Of late, though, the calls had grown bipartisan. On Monday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) published a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal describing the Colombia pact as an important spur to employment:

Each day we fail to act costs American jobs and sales-and sends them elsewhere.

So, 1,091 days after the Bush administration submitted the Colombia FTA to Congress, the Obama administration has found a path to move forward. The plaudits for this move have been rolling in since it was announced yesterday. Not only does the Colombia FTA offer its own array of benefits, but the move has the potential to unblock U.S. trade policy more broadly. To lever the administration into action on the pending FTAs, Republicans had linked the passage of the Korean FTA, renewal of trade adjustment assistance programs, trade preference programs, and even confirmation of a new commerce secretary. It is not clear that all of the timing issues have been worked out between House Republicans and the White House, but the agreement with Colombia significantly enhances prospects for movement on a trade agenda this summer.

Lest there be excessive rejoicing, though, it is worth keeping in mind that passage of the three agreements would partially complete the trade agenda of 2007, and there was a cost to the dithering. The pending FTAs offered benefits in two important dimensions: access to the markets for American exporters and stronger diplomatic ties. On the economic front, this access was originally set to grant American businesses and farmers preferential access to the Korean and Colombian markets, ahead of global competitors. Now, there is a scramble just to keep U.S. exporters on an even footing. While the agreements were stymied by domestic political fights in the United States, our partner countries reached other agreements to open their markets to the world. A prime motivation for the mid-summer deadline on passing the Korea-U.S. FTA is the looming passage into force of Korea's FTA with the European Union.

On the diplomatic front, the FTAs were meant to send a signal of friendship and allegiance. While the partner countries certainly welcome passage now, that signal has been somewhat diminished by years of slapping them around through public criticism.

There is a pending, post-2007 trade agenda out there. The eternal but deeply-troubled global trade talks (the Doha Round) are in desperate need of American leadership. The WTO's director-general, Pascal Lamy, sounded the alarm to members last week:

Now is the time for all of you, and in particular those among you who bear the largest responsibility in the system, to reflect on the consequences of failure ... to think about the consequences of the non-Round to the multilateral trading system which we have so patiently built over the last 70 years. It is the time to think hard about multilateralism, which your leaders, yourselves and myself preach at every occasion. In politics, as in life, there is always a moment when intentions and reality face the test of truth. We are nearly there today.

Then there are the Bush-launched, Obama-embraced talks to expand the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A number of the participants in those talks are earnestly shooting for a conclusion this November, when the United States hosts the APEC meetings in Hawaii. This seems implausible, since the administration has not yet broached the question of trade negotiating authority for those talks with the Congress. And if labor and human rights issues with Colombia stirred controversy, wait until we start discussing Vietnam, a TPP participant.

The biggest question surrounding this week's breakthrough on the Colombia FTA is where it leaves relations between the White House and the American labor movement, which has been the most outspoken opponent of recent trade agreements. The administration made some inroads with labor through its reworking of the Korea-U.S. FTA at the end of last year. That won the support of the United Auto Workers, though that support did not extend beyond Korea. The AFL-CIO has remained opposed to all of the pending FTAs. Yesterday, it released a statement:

We are deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has signaled that it will move forward to submit the proposed U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement to Congress for a vote in the near future ... on the basis of the information provided to us at this time, we remain strongly opposed to the Colombia trade agreement.

It remains to be seen whether this opposition will be vigorous or muted. The Obama administration will also need to decide whether, on trade issues, it has now cast its lot with a coalition of pro-trade Republicans and internationalist Democrats, or whether it has pushed its labor allies as far as it dares.

Those are questions for another day, though. Today, Presidents Obama and Santos had cause to celebrate.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Rajiv Shah cries wolf

Imagine the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying that if defense funding were reduced, seven hundred thousand people in Libya would die, and tens of millions elsewhere in the world. It would be considered fear-mongering of the most repulsive kind. In fact, it would be considered a threat to the integrity of our civilian-led military to  attempt such a blackmail of the Congress.

But that's exactly the approach USAID Director Rajiv Shah took last week testifying before the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. He said that if proposed reductions to USAID's budget go into effect 70,000 children will die. He added that he considered that a very conservative estimate, and that among other effects, another 800,000 recipients of our international disaster assistance in Darfur would be at risk.

Shah testified that 30,000 deaths would come specifically from scaling back anti-malaria programs, 24,000 from lack of immunization, and 18,000 lack of skilled attendants at births. All this from cutting 16 percent of the Obama administration's international affairs budget request.  

Hard to say which is more offensive, Shah threatening Congress will have blood on its hands unless it continues to fund USAID programs, or the bureaucratic and cultural mindset that considers increased spending the only solution to a multivariate problem.

USAID was created as an entity separate from the State Department (and military assistance) in 1961, in order to remove from development assistance the taint of being provided in order to advance America's interests. USAID's official history rather unselfconsciously states that "It was thought that to renew support for foreign assistance at existing or higher levels, to address the widely known shortcomings of the previous assistance structure, and to achieve a new mandate for assistance to developing countries, the entire program had to be 'new.'"

The whiff of sanctimony pervades USAID still, which is part of why it is so unpopular on Capitol Hill, where elected representatives often find unpersuasive that the spending of their constituents money abroad should have no connection to our national interests.

Providing money through the Agency for International Development is by no means the only -- or even the most effective -- way to alleviate disease and poverty in the world. Case in point: funding for AID was dramatically cut in the 1990s, and yet that decade saw nearly a billion people lifted out of poverty by actual economic development. USAID's funding has been increased by 150 percent in the past decade -- most of that coming with the advocacy of a Republican president and his secretaries of state. 

There are many ways USAID could compensate for reduced government spending:

  • USAID could build coalitions of like-minded governments to share the burden of funding.
  • USAID could reach out into American society for private-sector partners to fund programs.
  • USAID could use its power as a convener and facilitator of non-governmental organization involvement in programs.
  • USAID could develop performance metrics that ensure it is using what money is available to greatest effect.
  • USAID could prioritize its own activity to close down programs of lesser immediate importance.
  • USAID could discontinue development projects in countries like China and Brazil that, as a result of their own economic development, are now providers of development assistance to others.

In fact, USAID's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review champions all these approaches. USAID just doesn't practice them.  

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images