The job of growing markets for U.S. beef just got a bit tougher, thanks to House Democrats.

In early April, President Bush placed the U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact in the hands of Congress, which under “fast-track” rules has 90 days to provide an up-or-down vote. But under pressure from anti-trade interests, including both the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced Democrats intended to suspend the required 90-day rule. They did just that later in the week by essentially a party-line vote of 224-195.

The vote puts the measure off until 2009, but likely means its demise, as well as that of other free-trade measures. With Democrats changing such time-honored, good-faith rules in midstream, why would other countries enter into trade discussions with the U.S.?

Leveling the playing field

The truth is that the measure likely would have passed, as polls show a majority of Americans support free trade.

And the Colombia measure would have been a hard one to oppose. After all, a record $1.2 billion of U.S. agriculture products were shipped to Colombia in 2007 under hefty tarrifs. Meanwhile, almost all Colombian food and agriculture exports enter the U.S. duty-free.

Passage of the trade deal meant that, upon implementation, more than 70% of U.S. agriculture products would immediately receive duty-free treatment. The rest would be eliminated within 15 years.

USDA Secretary Ed Schafer called Pelosi's move “bad for America's economy, and most of all, bad for American farmers.

“It's time for the U.S. to be on a level playing field with Colombia,” Schafer said. “It's the right thing to do for America's economy and for American farmers.”

Meanwhile, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) called the Colombia trade measure “one of the best-negotiated, free-trade agreements for U.S. beef to date.” NCBA says tariffs on U.S. Prime- and Choice-graded beef would receive immediate duty-free, quota-free access upon implementation of the agreement. Tariffs on all remaining beef products would be eliminated within 15 years.

Few beef imports

What's more, NCBA adds, the U.S. has historically imported only a very minimal amount of pre-cooked beef products from Colombia — the most being $16,000 worth in 2006. Colombia isn't eligible to export live cattle or fresh beef to the U.S. due to the presence of foot-and-mouth disease, a status that won't change with passage of the U.S.-Colombia pact.

Schafer says that what's interesting about this issue is that Congress by unanimous consent in February reauthorized the Andean Trade Preference Act. Enacted in 1991, it allows trade benefits to the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to combat drug production and trafficking by helping them develop and strengthen legitimate industries. It provides duty-free access to U.S. markets for approximately 5,600 products.

“Why is Congress willing to continue to allow Colombian products to enter the U.S. without tariffs, but not willing to vote to have American exports to Colombia to go tariff free? I think that is a question Speaker Pelosi should answer,” he said.

That's a darned good question.