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Carlos Gutierrez
Carlos Gutierrez
Secretary of Commerce

August 12, 2008

Carlos Gutierrez

Thank you for joining me today on "Ask the White House."

Today is "Trade Day," the day the Department of Commerce releases trade data for the first half of 2008. Last year, exports accounted for a record 12 percent of our gross domestic product. Today there’s good news to report: exports of goods and services were up 18.8 percent year-to-date through June, and our trade deficit continues to narrow. Trade continues to be an important contributor to our economy.

Free trade agreements (FTAs) increase trade flows and boost U.S. exports. In fact, exports have increased with every country with which the United States has an FTA. When you combine all the FTAs implemented during the Bush Administration, we’ve grown our trade surplus with these countries from $3.8 billion in 2000, to $21.0 billion in 2007. Now, Congress has an opportunity to even the playing field for American exporters with democratic allies Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Now more than ever, these FTAs are critical to America’s continued growth and competitiveness.

I look forward to your questions.

Russell, from Seattle writes:
What exactly does it mean to have a "free trade agreement" with a foreign country?

Carlos Gutierrez
Thanks for your question Russell. Simply put, a free trade agreement, or FTA, is a permanent arrangement between one or more countries that gives all members of the FTA preferential access to one another’s economies. For example, American industrial products exported to South Korea currently face tariffs on average of 6.2 percent. The U.S.-Korea FTA will eliminate most of these tariffs immediately and all tariffs by the time the FTA is fully implemented allowing U.S. exports free access to the Korean market.

FTAs have proved to be one of the best ways to open up foreign markets to U.S. exporters. Trade agreements also encourage foreign governments to adopt open and transparent business and investment practices and strengthen the climate for business. FTAs can also help accelerate a country’s economic growth by allowing greater competition, encouraging the formation of international partnerships, and by greatly liberalizing many industries with high-growth potential.

It is important to note that while we have trade with many countries, including China, India and Russia, we only have free trade agreements currently in place with 14 countries. Often the countries with which we have trade challenges are countries with which we do not have FTAs. FTAs help clarify the rules and provide a level playing field for Americans to compete fairly. Congressional approval of the pending FTAs with Colombia, Panama and South Korea would give U.S. companies and workers greater access to 100 million consumers.

Linda, from Ocala, Fl writes:
How many hours per day does the president work and approximately how many hours nightly does he sleep? Family arguement - my guess - the president is probably lucky to get between 4 and 6 hours of sleep nightly. My families agruement - he only works 9-5 daily.

Carlos Gutierrez
Linda, I hate to step into the middle of a family argument and I certainly can’t speak for President Bush’s schedule, but I will say this: he is very focused and dedicated. Public service can be hard work—but it is tremendously rewarding. I think every American should take the opportunity to get involved in public service at some time in their life.

Gaston, from Washington, DC writes:
Could you be so kind to explain me where was the Colombia Free Trade Agreement initiative originated? Which agencies have played the greatest role throughout the policy making process?

Carlos Gutierrez
Working with Congress and America’s workers and businesses, many government agencies have a role to play in free trade agreements, but none quite as prominent as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, or USTR. USTR is part of the Executive Office of the President and it is “responsible for developing and coordinating U.S. international trade, commodity, and direct investment policy, and overseeing negotiations with other countries.”

More than 16 years ago, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preferences Act, giving Colombia and other Andean nations preference to our market—one-way free trade, if you will. The Colombia free trade agreement will make our trading relationship with Colombia two-way free trade, giving U.S. businesses, workers and farmers the same preferences that Colombia has historically enjoyed. President Bush notified Congress of his intent to sign the U.S.-Colombia FTA on August 24, 2006. The U.S. and Colombia signed the Agreement on November 22, 2006, but both countries need to pass implementing legislation before the agreement can enter into force. The agreement has been languishing on Capitol Hill for 630 days, while American exports to Colombia alone have faced nearly $1.2 billion in tariffs.

Kim, from Kentucky writes:
Mr. Gutierrez, Are the free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea in Congress for a vote? I cannot see a good reason why these agreements would not pass; however, was surprised when the Colombian Free Trade Agreement failed to get enough votes. What is the current status on these 3 agreements?

Carlos Gutierrez
I wholeheartedly agree with you. All three FTAs should be approved. The three agreements need a vote and approval from Congress before they are enacted. Each agreement has been signed by our government and the governments of Colombia, Panama and South Korea. On April 7, 2008, President Bush submitted the Colombia agreement to Congress for a vote, but thus far, the leadership in Congress has refused to give it a vote, so we have not yet sent Panama or South Korea to Capitol Hill for consideration. The Bush Administration and the American people continue to push for a fair, up or down vote according to the law, Trade Promotion Authority, under which the agreements were negotiated and signed. It's up to the Members of Congress to vote on the free trade agreements, as many have stated they would like to do. More information about each agreement can be found at

William, from Overland Park, KS writes:
Do you think free trade agreements with countries like Colombia will increase the standard of living for the poor there? Also, what would you say to those concerned about sweatshop labor that free trade agreements would allow?

Carlos Gutierrez
Thanks, William. The Colombia free trade agreement is a win-win for both countries. In 2007, for example, over 90 percent of U.S. imports from Colombia entered the United States duty-free. The U.S. - Colombia Free Trade Agreement will give American businesses, farmers, ranchers and workers similar access to this important market. Upon entry into force of the agreement, over 80 percent of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial goods to Colombia will enter duty-free immediately.

The free trade agreement is expected to create jobs and provide economic opportunities in legitimate industries throughout Colombia, thereby lessening employment in the informal sector where the rule of law is not enforced and working conditions go largely unchecked. Additionally, the FTA includes ground-breaking labor provisions that will help further progress that has already been made on labor laws and enforcement, and also provides for civil society participation in such processes. Colombia is a country that has experienced a tremendous turnaround. Under President Uribe, homicides have dropped 40 percent, kidnappings by 83 percent and terrorist attacks by 76 percent. And, Colombia’s economy has grown tremendously—6.9 percent last year alone—while unemployment and poverty are at their lowest levels in decades. Continued economic growth will create higher paying jobs in Colombia, thereby improving the standard of living for Colombians. We have a better opportunity to help create stronger labor rights with a permanent FTA than without one.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Gutierrez: With the way the US economy is going is it having and affect on trade issues and exports? Thank You

Carlos Gutierrez
Cliff, that’s a great question. Trade is an increasingly important part of our economy. And it’s continued to be a bright spot, even though we’ve faced some tough headwinds. Last year, the U.S. exported a record $1.6 trillion in goods to countries around the world. Today’s numbers show that the U.S. exported $932.8 billion worth of goods and services for the first half of the year. That means that more crops grown in Iowa and products manufactured in your home state of Ohio are finding their ways into the hands of consumers around the globe than ever before. At a time when our economy is facing tough challenges, what we need is more open markets so more products made in the USA can be sold to consumers overseas. Congress has the opportunity to create new market opportunities for American workers by passing pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Moshe, from New York writes:
Mr. Secretary, Do you believe there still is a possibility this Congress will pass the Columbia Free Trade Agreement, which the President has been very vocal in support of?

Looking forward to your response. Thank you.

Carlos Gutierrez
Moshe, we are hopeful that Congress will see that this agreement is important for our economy and for our security and give the Colombia FTA the vote it deserves. Colombia is a friend and an ally in our Hemisphere. Colombia’s prosperity means more jobs, opportunity and stability in our neighborhood—and that’s a good thing for America. Next week I’ll be headed to Atlanta for the Americas Competitiveness Forum 2008. Leaders from nearly every country in the Western Hemisphere, including Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, will convene to discuss how we can increase the standard of living for all people across the region, and work cooperatively to be more competitive globally. Free trade agreements and tearing down barriers to trade and commerce wherever they exist will be at the top of the agenda.

If you’d like more information about the Forum, please visit:

Brett, from Vienna, West Virginia writes:
My question is if the trade agreement does not go well then do they keep finding a way to trade or do they just give up and shut off trades with a country?

Carlos Gutierrez
Great question, Brett. If we don’t have a trade agreement with a country like Colombia, we will still continue to trade. It will just be one-way free trade with Colombian businesses having preferential access to our markets, while U.S. exports face burdensome tariffs to enter the Colombian market. We believe American businesses, workers and farmers deserve the same preferential treatment our Congress has granted to Colombia’s businesses, workers and farmers for over 16 years.

Colombia will also most likely increase their trade with other countries. For example, Canada has just signed an FTA with Colombia. Unless we approve our FTA soon Colombia will buy products, such as wheat, from Canada instead of us.

Carlos Gutierrez

Thank you for participating in today’s “Ask the White House.”

While there’s good news in today’s trade numbers, we can’t be complacent. The United States remains the world’s largest exporter. However, it is imperative we do everything we can to give our exporters the edge they need when competing in the global marketplace. This means encouraging innovation, lowering barriers to exports and providing the energy a growing economy needs.

Today’s trade numbers show how much international commerce is changing our economy—and the world’s. We’ve been a leader in creating the increasingly interconnected world in which we live.

Now we have the opportunity to continue on that path if we make the right policy choices today. That means passing pending trade agreements, expanding opportunities abroad, investing in developing innovative technologies and tapping into energy resources here at home.