The president’s trade promotion authority (TPA), which restricts Congress from adding formal amendments to implementing legislation for trade agreements once the legislation has been formally introduced, expires June 30. If Congress is to consider any new free trade agreements (FTA) under the current TPA, the president must notify Congress of his intent to sign those FTAs by March 31. The president has indicated that he will formally notify Congress by that date of his intent to sign the FTA with Panama. However, a long-standing dispute with the U.S. government over the labor provisions in currently pending FTAs has delayed presidential signature and congressional consideration of the Colombia and Peru FTAs. In fact, despite the president’s plan to announce this month that he will sign the Panama FTA, the text of the agreement actually remains open, because the United States and Panama have not yet concluded the chapter on labor provisions.

The Peru and Colombia FTAs currently include provisions requiring each country to enforce its own labor laws; changing those provisions would require re-opening the texts of the agreements. But some in Congress believe the existing provisions are insufficient, because they do not require the countries to strengthen the labor provisions provided for in their own laws. Congressional opponents have accordingly indicated they will only support the FTAs if the labor provisions require these countries to bring their labor laws into compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) standards. Others have gone further and demanded that the agreements provide for trade sanctions if a country fails to enforce its labor standards.

USTR has stated that it is engaging in an ongoing dialogue with members of the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives on this matter. A February 19 USTR proposal suggested requiring FTA signatories to create labor standards that match either U.S. or ILO standards. It is not clear that USTR would consider changing labor provisions already finalized in the Colombia and Peru FTAs, but the president is simultaneously working to renew TPA, and agreement on the labor standards the United States would require in future FTA negotiations could become a condition of TPA renewal.