By Bill Lambrecht
From 2007 to last year, Missouri's exports to the world declined by $530 million, due to recession and also because of what free trade proponents regard as America's failure to do all it can to promote global commerce.
Passage in Congress Wednesday of so-called free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia can boost receipts from America's exported products and might be especially helpful in selling Missouri farm products, senators say.
"If there's low-hanging fruit in job creation, it's exporting to countries who want to buy our products," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said during debate.
The Senate completed passage of the agreements Wednesday evening even as some members were keeping an eye on the score in the National League Championship Series game. Hours before, the House passed the agreements in less resounding fashion.
The agreement with South Korea is by far the most significant of the three with the potential of creating as many as 280,000 jobs, says the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The Korea agreement, which slashes tariffs on exported goods by as much as 95 percent in some cases, is viewed as especially helpful to producers of beef, pork and poultry -- a robust industry in Missouri and the Midwest.
Yet the specter of the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1994 -- blamed in some quarters for hastening the loss of American jobs -- hung over the debate.
Democratic Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, both of St. Louis, opposed all three pacts, as did Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville. Most labor unions opposed the agreements, and President Barack Obama relied on support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rather than union allies.
Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Dick Durbin of Illinois both signed on to the South Korea and Panama agreements but opposed the deal with Colombia.
Durbin said he supports trade with Colombia but couldn't "ignore the fact that my vote for this Colombia free trade agreement would indicate that enough has been done to stem human rights abuses in Colombia. It hasn't."
McCaskill's no on the Colombian deal, her office said, reflected concerns that "stem from the country's long history of tolerating human rights abuses against workers and labor activists."
Her vote for the Korea agreement, according to her office, was based on the calculation that it would help a variety of Missouri-produced goods -- from pork and beef to autos and Harley-Davidson motorcycles made in Kansas City. Missouri farm products arriving in Korea are assessed a tariff of more than 50 percent even as Korean products coming here have just a 9 percent tariff add-on, according to McCaskill.
Blunt was among the most avid supporters of the trade deals, helping to broker a deal on aid to workers harmed by global trade that paved the way for votes on the trio of trade accords.
Speaking with reporters this morning, Blunt called passage of the trade pacts "a rare bipartisan agreement" in the Senate which, he said, is unlikely to do little more than "keep the doors open" until the 2012 elections.
Blunt said that trade-related jobs had grown three times faster in Missouri than other employment during a recent four-year period. In the run-up to the vote, he surveyed Missourians using social media to gauge their sentiments on the trade pacts. He said on the Senate floor that his responses suggested they could be greatly beneficial for a host of farm products, from black walnuts to hogs.
He said that one Missourian replied that his family expected to get $11 more per hog they raised thanks to an improved market.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois' first-term Republican, said after the vote that Illinois needs more global trade to open new markets for products and create agriculture, high tech and manufacturing jobs."
"Most importantly," Kirk added, "these trade deals do not increase borrowing or raise taxes."