August 8, 2008 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

Protectionism 1 - Free Trade 0

Trade's in trouble.

With little time left in this year's legislative calendar and an unproductive meeting at the latest Doha Round, it's becoming painfully clear that protectionism is winning and free trade is losing. But in an increasingly globalized and competitive international market, will we -- the consumers -- end up being the real losers?

According to most estimates, Congress likely will be in session for only a couple more weeks this election year. "Being in session" is Washington, D.C., talk for casting votes, holding hearings and doing other official congressional work in our nation's capital. While most of us have to report to work at least five days every week, Congress members are obligated to work only three to four days a week in D.C. during most weeks. (To be fair, they're often pretty busy during the days they're in their home districts, attending to the needs of their constituents.)

Being an election year, though, many congress members also will be campaigning hard on top of their official congressional obligations -- in order to return next year.

That schedule, perhaps, may explain how congressional leaders decided what to bring up (and not bring up) for debate -- and ultimately vote on during the last few months. Amid the flurry of resolutions and bills passed, there certainly hasn't been a shortage of name-calling and postulating by both political parties. But in the end, Congress has had little to show for during the second half of the 110th Congress.

And yet among the many missed opportunities of this Congress thus far, the stalled Colombian Trade Agreement stands head over the shoulders over other legislative gridlocks. It shows how poisonous politics has been killing sensible and fair-minded policy. The proposed trade deal with Colombia is a relatively modest proposal to correct an unfair one-way trade policy with one of our strongest allies in South America. But it's far from modest when you consider Colombia's dramatic turn-around -- from being a hotbed of violence and crime to the stable democracy and growing economy that it is today.

Yet, after months of failed negotiations, congressional leaders have shown little willingness to get past political grandstanding. With few legislative days left, the prospect to come to an agreement is grim.

Perhaps it's too early to write an obituary, but with members keeping a close eye to the November elections and believing that protectionist rhetoric is a sure-fire way to gain votes, it's difficult to see how an agreement can be reached. In too many parts of our country, particularly in what's known as the rust-belt states, free trade is unfairly being blamed for job losses.

And yet, history and economics continue to demonstrate how countries that lower, and not lift, trade barriers prosper economically. In time, the way of life improves as consumers have more options to choose from. Another good example is El Salvador, who has made great strides in the last few years in lowering taxes and encouraging international investment. As a result, their middle class has grown.

As former Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, "It's not over till it's over." Perhaps Congress will muster the courage to do the right thing, even if it's not convenient or politically smart.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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First appeared in El Diario