Gary Shapiro

When it comes to free trade agreements (FTAs) pending in Congress, Americans have learned not to get their hopes up. No matter what President Obama might say in favor of passing the three FTAs with Panama, Colombia and South Korea; no matter how close congressional leaders are in getting a deal done; and no matter how many times proponents preach the unsurpassed benefits to free trade, something always blocks final passage.

So we should take the news that Congress is - once again - close to finishing work on the three FTAs with a heavy dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, Congress has the best chance at passage than at any other point since the beginning of the Obama Administration and we cannot afford to squander this opportunity. When the final obstacles are cleared, it's up to Congress to forgo the partisan bickering and get to the business of finally passing these necessary vehicles of economic prosperity and job creation.

A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations spells out in troubling language the damage America's inertia on free trade has caused our economy. Headed by former Bush chief of staff Andy Card and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the bipartisan report explains how other nations, especially in the EU, Asia and Central America, have spent the past decade pursuing free trade agreements, all the while the U.S. continues to dither.

The report summarizes: "By allowing the EU, in particular, to gain a first-move advantage, U.S. companies may find themselves forced to conform to European regulatory standards if they are to sell into the world's fastest growing markets." In other words, U.S. businesses are in danger of losing the autonomy that has given them their historical advantage over foreign competition. Now, we're playing catch-up instead of leading.

The CFR report covers more than the three pending FTAs with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. It sets forth a national trade strategy that "brings to more Americans more of the benefits of global engagement, within the framework of a strengthened, rules-based trading system." The Obama administration should work with Congress to consider the report's findings. If instead the president decides to punt, the Republican presidential candidates should give the report the attention it deserves - and the Obama administration all the criticism it has invited.

Gary Shapiro

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing some 2,000 consumer electronics companies.