Mr. President, the English poet, Thomas Gray, once said: ``Commerce changes the fate and genius of nations.''
The United States has always understood that commerce improves our fate and sharpens our genius. We know opening the channels of commerce creates new opportunity, generates new ideas, and forms new partnerships.
We know global commerce makes us more competitive, more innovative, and more productive--but also sometimes more difficult.
Today, the Senate has a historic opportunity to build on this legacy by approving our free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. These agreements will increase exports of U.S. goods and services. They will create tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs. They will bind us even more closely to the three important allies.
Colombia, especially, has returned from the brink of becoming a failed state to being the third largest economy in Latin America and one of its most respected leaders. It is astounding just how far Colombia has come. It has a lot further to go, but considering the state of Colombia 15, 20 years ago, with the narcotics trade, paramilitary forces, and assassinations, it is amazing how far they have come. A lot of this goes to the courage of the Colombian people, and especially to the leaders. It has not been easy, to say the least.
Panama is the crossroads of global commerce and among the fastest growing economies in the Western Hemisphere.
South Korea is the world's 15th largest economy, our seventh largest trading partner, and a strategic ally in a very volatile region of the world.
Now, more than ever, we need to expand commerce and improve our economic fate. Clearly, with unemployment at 9.1 percent, our economy is growing too slowly. Consumer demand is too weak, and American workers, farmers, and ranchers are desperately seeking new markets and customers for their products.
The Colombia, Panama, and South Korea trade agreements will help U.S. exporters gain new customers in three lucrative and fast-growing markets. They will increase U.S. exports by up to $13 billion each year. They will boost our GDP by more than $15 billion, and they will support tens of thousands of urgently needed American jobs. It will help the jobs picture--clearly, it will not solve it, but it will help.
These agreements will help folks such as Errol Rice, a fifth generation cattle rancher from Helena, MT. Earlier this year, Errol testified before the Finance Committee on the importance of the South Korea trade agreement. He told us that South Korea is the fourth largest market in the world for U.S. beef, and it is growing rapidly.
Errol welcomed the commitments I secured to increase funding for market promotion and fully implement our bilateral beef import protocol. But he underscored that our position in the South Korean market is at risk. Australia, a large beef exporter, is racing to conclude its own trade agreement with South Korea. By approving our agreement with South Korea today, we will help Errol and all American ranchers maintain their competitive edge, increase sales, and create jobs in their communities.
Trade agreements improve our economy only if they create a level playing field for U.S. exporters. We cannot allow our trading partners to gain unfair advantage by failing to respect workers' rights or protect the environment.
That is why the Colombia, Panama, and South Korea trade agreements include robust labor and environmental commitments that were basically made in 2007, with all the labor and environmental framework included in these agreements. These commitments require our trading partners to uphold internationally recognized labor rights, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. That is in the agreement.
They also required our partners to protect the environment, and these obligations are fully enforceable, just like the commercial obligations in the agreements. In many cases, our free-trade agreement partners have gone the extra mile to meet our high standards. Colombia is the best example. Many of us are concerned about labor violence in Colombia. We believe the death of even one union member is one too many.
I urge my colleagues to consider the progress Colombia has made in recent years and the commitment of the Colombian Government to continue that progress.
Colombia demonstrated this commitment in April when President Obama and Colombian President Santos agreed to the Labor Action Plan. In that plan, Colombia made specific and groundbreaking commitments to strengthen worker rights, protect workers from violence, and prosecute the perpetrators of violence.
Colombia has fulfilled every commitment to date. It has hired 100 new inspectors to enforce workers' rights. It has cracked down on the abuse of cooperatives. It has expanded protection of union members. It has sentenced to prison 47 people found guilty of killing union members. There is still more to be done, but Colombia has demonstrated remarkable progress.
By approving the free-trade agreement, we will be able to enforce labor rights in Colombia, including the rights addressed by the action plan. If we reject the agreement, however, we lose our ability to ensure that labor conditions in Colombia will continue to improve. This is a very important point. Other countries' trade agreements with Colombia don't have the labor protection provisions. The U.S. one does have labor protection provisions that are very strong. If we don't ratify this agreement, then workers in Colombia will not be protected because other agreements don't protect them.
These trade agreements will also help us rise to the challenge of China. Today, China is the No. 1 trading partner for South Korea and No. 2 partner for Colombia and Panama. If we approve these agreements, we will give American exporters a leg up on competitors from China and other countries. If we reject them, China's advantage and influence in these markets will only grow.
After we approve these agreements, we should begin thinking about the next steps for our trade agenda. We should invite our new free-trade agreement partners to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, negotiations. We need to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and extend these agreements to better facilitate even more jobs in America.
Colombia, Panama, and South Korea have demonstrated that they are willing to make the far-reaching commitments that our trade agreements require. Their participation in the TPP negotiations will help us achieve a high-standard 21st-century agreement that spans the Pacific.
Thomas Gray was correct when he said commerce changes the fate and genius of nations. There is no better example than the United States. We have benefited greatly from trading with foreign nations. In these tough economic times, we need to embrace these benefits now more than ever. For the sake of American exporters seeking to grow and create jobs, let's approve these three free-trade agreements.
One final point. I think it is fair to say that as we engage in commerce worldwide in countries around the world, we are not totally pure. We don't wear white hats, and other countries are not Darth Vaders and wear black hats. But it is true the shade of gray of our hats are a lot lighter shade of gray than the shade of gray of their hats, which is a darker shade. That is especially true in the American, Asian, and African countries--maybe a little less true in European countries.
These agreements are no-brainers. Why do I say that?
Because with respect to Colombia and Panama, products, goods, and services coming to our country today are virtually duty free, virtually no tariffs, or nontariff trade barriers.
On the other hand, American products going to those countries today face very high tariffs and trade barriers, especially with agriculture but also in manufacturing goods. The figures are quite startling, frankly. So it is a no-brainer. These are, for the first time virtually, free-trade agreements. It is a freebie for U.S. exporters and American companies exporting products into Colombia and Panama. They are really free.
With respect to Korea, it is very similar. Korean manufacturing tariffs, tariffs that Korea has on U.S. goods are more than twice as high as U.S. tariffs on Korean-manufactured goods. Tariffs that U.S. companies face in trying to export to Korea are twice as high today as are the tariffs the Korean manufacturers face when they try to sell products in the United States. The average Korean tariff on U.S. agricultural goods is 54 percent. The average tariff on American agricultural goods that we are trying to sell in Korea is 54 percent, about 5 times as high as the tariff on Korean agricultural products as they attempt to ship to the United States.
That is why this is a no-brainer. This is so simple. Everybody should be for this agreement. It creates a more level playing field. I urge my colleagues to support this agreement. When they read the agreement and understand the terms, it should go through with no opposition because we are, in fact, helping Americans, American jobs.
The only wrinkle I hear about is Colombia. I have been there. When one is in Colombia--and I have known their leaders, the past two Presidents--it is clear that they have made huge progress. If we reject this agreement, I submit that the progress made thus far will slip, and the conditions in Colombia will start to deteriorate.
We must pass these three trade agreements. Also, the U.S. political-geopolitical position in South America is critical. If we adopt this agreement, that will enhance America's geopolitical position in South America. If we don't do it, Colombians are going to say: We have given up on the United States. We have been trying to negotiate this for over 5 years. Then where are they going to go? They will embrace Venezuela or China.