July 15, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Jim Abrams, Associated Press:
The House yesterday approved a free-trade agreement
with Australia, an important market for U.S.-manufactured
goods and a strong ally in the war against terrorism.
The House voted 314 to 109 to make Australia the seventh
nation to enjoy a bilateral free-trade relationship
with the United States. The Senate is expected to follow
today with a vote to implement the agreement signed
by the two countries in February.
"It will expand one of the most important bilateral
relationships that exists," said Rep. David Dreier
(R-Calif.) as the House took up the agreement.
The measure had robust bipartisan backing because Australia,
unlike less developed free-trade partners, has strong
labor rights and environmental laws and poses no threat
to U.S. jobs. "If you can't agree with this trade
agreement, I don't know what trade agreement you're
ever going to agree with," said Rep. James P. Moran
But there were some detractors, mainly among lawmakers
concerned about a gradual increase in beef and dairy
products from Australia and a provision in the bill
that some say could impede future legislative efforts
to permit the reimportation of prescription drugs.
Under the agreement, 99 percent of U.S. manufactured
goods and all agriculture exports would immediately
gain duty-free access. Other provisions give increased
protection for intellectual property such as movies
and video games.
Estimates are that it would result in a nearly $2 billion
increase in U.S. exports, which include autos, aircraft,
chemicals, plastics and medical equipment. Current two-way
trade in goods and services is about $29 billion, with
the United States enjoying a $9 billion surplus.
Moreover, the agreement would reward Australia for
its support of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan
and Iraq. The economic pact, said House Ways and Means
Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), is "strengthening
an alliance that is as strong as any in the world."
Much of the debate in the House was over language under
which Australia promises to be more transparent and
accountable in operating its government-run system of
subsidized drugs. The agreement also reconfirms U.S.
law under which patent holders retain control over the
sale of imports of their products in the United States.
Critics warned that writing patent law into a trade
agreement could thwart ongoing efforts to lift restrictions
on the reimportation of cheap drugs from Canada and
"It is highly inappropriate in my view for the
U.S. Trade Representative to negotiate a specific provision
in a free-trade agreement that could create a potential
conflict or violation of that law in the near future,"
said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
But the U.S. trade representative's office, in a letter
Tuesday to Thomas, emphasized that the agreement creates
no new legal rights for U.S. patent holders and that
Australia already bans the export of its subsidized
pharmaceuticals. The letter added that Congress can
still change U.S. law on reimportation. "The Congress
always retains its constitutional authority to change
U.S. law," it said.
The Australia pact follows approval last year of free-trade
agreements with Chile and Singapore. Other countries
with bilateral free-trade relationships are Canada,
Mexico, Israel and Jordan.
Advocates of free trade also hope to get a vote this
year on an agreement signed with Morocco. A far larger
agreement, establishing a free-trade zone with Central
American countries, faces opposition from Democrats
unhappy with language upholding labor standards in those
countries, and is unlikely to come up this year.