Commentary: Failure to extend preferences bill hurts U.S., trade partners

The Miami HeraldFebruary 16, 2011 

If you sent or received Valentine’s Day flowers this week without having to pay a fortune, thank the Andean Trade Preferences Act. It’s the law that lifts tariffs on exports from Colombia and Ecuador, two source countries for many of the flowers sold throughout the country, particularly in South Florida. Unless Congress can get its act together, though, you’ll be paying a lot more the next time the occasion calls for flowers.

Over the weekend, the Andean trade pact fell victim to classic Washington paralysis. It expired on Saturday, thanks to a crowded legislative calendar, political gamesmanship, partisan bickering over extraneous political issues and just plain confusion. Every interested party shares the objective of approving APTA, but politics has a way of trumping common sense inside the Beltway.

ATPA is supported by Republicans, Democrats and the White House. Extending it for another year or six months should be a snap, but House members couldn’t get the votes to move forward because but they couldn’t agree on the politics. As a result, tariffs on flowers and a wide range of other products exported by Colombia and Ecuador will be going up as of Saturday, and it’s not clear when or how the impasse can be resolved.

The measure was part of a larger trade adjustment bill that failed to win approval because House members could not agree on how to “offset” the costs of paying for some of the job-retraining provisions in the umbrella bill. APTA was not the target, but it was, and remains, in the line of fire. According to supporters of APTA, that imperils U.S. imports of roses and other flowers, vegetables, fruits and nuts, apparel, fish and crustaceans and petroleum products.

When it was originally approved by Congress, APTA was explicitly linked to the objective of drug eradication, and it has proven to be a success.

In Colombia, whose coca production has been central to narcotics trafficking and consumption in the United States, producing these exports offers employment to rural Andean residents who otherwise might be pulled into raising coca. Ecuador is a key player in the war against drugs along its coast and shared border with Colombia. According to the 2007 U.N. World Drugs Report, Ecuador ranks sixth among countries in the world in terms of drug seizures from neighbor countries. U.S. officials have underscored Ecuador’s efforts to eradicate coca cultivation and destroy cocaine laboratories.

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