The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), described as potentially one of the biggest free trade agreements in United States history,will be enteringits 18th round of negotiationsJuly 15-25in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have no idea what it stipulates. Why? Because the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office refuses to release specific information about the ongoing negotiations. In fact, that information is classified.
Now, with Thursday’sconfirmation of new U.S. Trade Representative Michael Fromanand TPP negotiations nearing the final stages, members of Congress are again ramping up calls for transparency in a process that’s largely been kept out of the public eye.
In an interview with theHuffington Postlast week, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who finally saw the text of the draft agreement after secrecy policies surrounding TPP delayed Grayson for six weeks,described the trade agreementas “a punch in the face to the middle class of America.”
“I think that’s fair to say from what I’ve seen so far,” Grayson continued. “But I’m not allowed to tell you why!”
In November 2009, President Obama announced the intent of the U.S. to participate in the TPP, which would unite ten other countries—Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, with Japan set to join—in an “ambitious,” NAFTA-like agreement that would “enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs,” according the USTR website.
As part of the deal, “the United States and its TPP negotiation partners entered into a confidentiality arrangement” requiring all negotiations to remain secret, the USTR says.
The only insight afforded the public (besides similarly vague descriptions) has been gleaned from leaked draft texts of chapters. An organization called the Citizens Trade Campaignreleased chapterson intellectual property, regulatory coherence and drug formularies in late 2011. In June 2012, the organization released a chapter on investments. The leaked documentswere verifiedby consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
These draft chapters have sparked widespread skepticism and opposition from a number of organizations and activists, ranging from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation,which saidthe TPP “threatens to extend restrictive intellectual property (IP) laws across the globe,” to the AFL-CIO,which notedthe declarations and statements leaked are “cause for concern.”
Democracy Now!reportsthe new trade agreement “could rewrite the nation’s laws on everything from health care and Internet freedom to food safety and the financial markets.”
The U.S. Congress has also harshly criticized the TPP. An eye-opening lettersigned last year by more than 130 members of the House of Representativesand addressed to former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk says, “Unfortunately, reports indicate the agreement is likely to repeat, rather than improve upon, the existing trade template – including the weakening of Buy America provisions, providing extraordinary investor-state privileges, and restricting access to life-saving medicines in developing nations, to name a few.”
If anything, citizens in other TPP countries are even more upset about the potential deal and the opacity with which negotiations have been conducted.
AnAuckland Nowvideodepicts New Zealanders protesting the agreement. “If the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government, then where does the public get a say in any of this?” one protester asked.
AnIndependent Australiaarticledecries TPP secrecy. “It does not have to be like this. We do not need a secret process for trade agreements,” the article reads. “Australia should never have legitimised this anti-democratic secret process by entering into it.”
TheSantiago Timesof Chile issuedan editorial slamming TPP negotiations. And in a telling interview with the publication, even Rodrigo Contreras, Chile’s former lead negotiator in the deal,questioned the amount of secrecysurrounding the talks.
“[W]e must be able to discuss the project. We can share ideas, we can listen to civil society, we can have discussions at the universities. It’s perfectly possible,” Contreras said. Later in the interview he added, “It’s very risky to continue the process with trying to quiet any possible comment [sic].”
Contreras raises a good point: citizens must actually know what’s in the agreement before they can decide whether or not it’s right for the country. So why have the U.S. and other TPP countries hidden information about such a significant deal?
In afact sheet on TPP transparency, the USTR office claims, “To create the conditions necessary to successfully reach agreement in complex trade and investment negotiations, governments routinely keep their proposals and communications with each other confidential.”
Of course, privacy in negotiations is important, especially in the early rounds of an agreement. But after three years of negotiation, little of the TPP’s actual text has been officially released.
Making drafts of free trade agreements publicly available has been done before, even by the much-maligned Bush administration.In a letter to Froman, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.)notes President Bush’s release of aFree Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) draft agreement. Warren writes that though the draft released was a scrubbed version, “the disclosure nonetheless allowed outside observers to track the text under consideration and provide detailed feedback.”
And the World Trade Organization regularlyposts negotiating texts on its website, including from the Doha Round.
To its credit, the USTR does involve advisors in the negotiation process. The office claims in its transparency fact sheet that the USTR has collected advice “from scores of individual advisors from outside government who serve as members of the Administration’s many trade advisory committees.” Indeed, theadvisory committee systemincludes 28 committees with members from labor, agriculture, industry and corporations. But which representatives have been privy to TPP negotiations? And have all representatives been given equal access and input?
ANew York Times op-edwritten by Public Citizen representatives notes that some 600 trade advisors “enjoy privileged access to draft texts and negotiators.” But this group of advisors is “dominated by representatives of big businesses.”
In a Daily Dot piece on the TPP meetings in Leesburg, Virginia, in 2012, Kevin Collierdescribed the stakeholder advising model. “Groups who want a say in the TPP (‘stakeholders,’ in the parlance of these meetings) get to hold small presentations and to set up tables in a huge conference room. It’s like a science fair for corporate interests.”
Warren raised issues about unchecked corporate influence when she asked Froman to provide more information about the extent to which the advisors involved in drafting the TPP language. When Froman refused to do so and also refused make a TPP draft agreement public, Warrendecided to oppose his confirmation, making her one of only four senator to cast a nay vote.
The terms and secretive negotiations of the TPP appear similar to those of a proposed U.S. trade agreement with the European Union called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
My TCF colleague Jacob Anbindercovered the agreement’s failure last summer: “ACTA has come under fire from civil-liberties advocates ever since news of its development came to light in 2008,” he wrote. “It was negotiated largely behind closed doors, and both EU and American officials have declined requests to release certain preliminary documents from the ACTA talks.”
The Obama administration’s secretive dealings have emerged as a topic of debate recently given the NSA leak and Department of Justice snooping scandal. The administration’s refusal to make a TPP draft agreement public demonstrates Obama’s continued failings on the issue of government transparency.
Congress has tried asserting its oversight authority, to little avail. During the last Congressional session, conservative Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (CA)penned an open letterwith Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) demanding transparency in TPP negotiations.
Wydenintroduced a billthat would have forced the U.S. Trade Representative to provide trade negotiation documents to members of Congress and their staff upon request. That bill was referred to the Committee on Finance, where it died.
The letter signed by nearly a third of the House warns of the TPP’s potential, “Since the United States will be obliged to bring existing and future U.S. policies into compliance with the norms established in the TPP FTA, the negotiations USTR is pursuing will create binding policies on future Congresses in numerous areas.”
Either the Obama administration should heed requests to make a scrubbed version of the draft agreement public or Congress should continue to forcefully assert its oversight authority on foreign trade negotiations.
“I heard the argument that transparency would undermine the trade representative’s policies to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant.” Warren said in herfloor speech opposing Froman’s confirmation. She continued: “This argument is exactly backwards. If transparency would lead to widespread opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States.”