WASHINGTON (CN) - President Obama submitted free trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia to Congress, and urged their passage as vital to reaching his administration's goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the president for not submitting the agreements sooner; they were originally negotiated by former President George W. Bush between 2006 and 2007. As a candidate, Obama explicitly opposed the agreements with Colombia and Korea due to lax enforcement of labor laws in those countries and provisions that might have allowed some products from North Korea to be imported under the South Korean agreement.
In letters to Congress accompanying each agreement, the president said that the three agreements now include provisions that require those nations to enforce key environmental laws and labor rights to further level the playing field with the United States, which has a much more stringent regulatory environment.
Under the United States Korea Free Trade Agreement, tariffs will be lifted on over 95 percent of U.S. exports within the first five years, including elimination of nearly two thirds of the tariffs on current U.S. agricultural exports.
Obama said the agreement was vital to reverse the decline of U.S. exports to Korea, which a decade ago accounted for nearly 21 percent of that nation's imports, but which today represent just 10 percent - well behind China and Japan.
The agreement with Colombia would, for the first time, allow most U.S. agricultural exports to enter that country duty free, as well as eliminate tariffs on over 80 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial exports.
In addition, the agreement with Columbia would give American service providers greater access to Colombia's $134 billion services market. The president said that this would help level the playing field since 91 percent of Colombia's exports to the U.S. enter duty free under existing trade preference programs.
Panama has agreed to eliminate tariffs on 87 percent of the goods it imports from the United States, and to allow more than half of the agricultural goods imported from the U.S. into the country duty free.
Within 15 years, Panama will eliminate almost all duties on U.S. imports, which will bring it more in-line with the nearly 98 percent of its goods being allowed in the United States duty free.