“During the top-secret drafting process, 28 trade advisory committees were formed to whisper in the ear of our trade negotiators. Who sat on those committees? Eighty-five percent were senior corporation executives or industry lobbyists.”
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), video message, July 7, 2016

Warren, an outspoken critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, criticized the industry’s influence on the drafting and negotiating process in a five-minute video message. A text of the claim also flashed across the screen while she said it in a voiceover. We took a look at the formation, role and makeup of the 28 trade advisory committees and found that her claim was missing some context. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

The trade advisory system was created through the Trade Act of 1974 to gather input from interested parties of U.S. trade negotiations. The current system was created through the 1974 law, originally designed get private-sector input into trade negotiations at the time. The law gives authority to the president to shape trade committees as appropriate, through the U.S. trade representative (USTR) and the commerce secretary.

The structure is divided into three tiers. In the first tier is the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, which advises on overall trade policy. The second tier’s committees advise on general policy areas, specifically environment, labor and agriculture. Another 22 committees in Tier 3 are narrowly focused to provide technical advice for trade agreements, and each is focused on a specific industry.

Warren says the committees were “formed” during the drafting process for TPP. This is problematic, as it creates a misleading impression that the 28 committees came together specifically for the drafting of TPP. As we wrote earlier, the committee system was established in 1974.

An aide said Warren was referring to how the administration forms and shapes the committees by renewing committee charters, selecting their members and determining the kind of access the committees are allowed to have.

But under the law, committees are rechartered at least once every four years, so by default the current committees would be renewed under the Obama administration.

The negotiations for TPP started before the United States took the lead in 2009, and the 16 industry committees were already in place prior to the Obama administration. (The administration most recently renewed their charters in 2014.) The committees are renewed as long as there is a need for them — i.e., ongoing negotiations for TPP.

“All of those committees were in existence before TPP and they have been working on things besides TPP in the past years,” said Jeffrey Schott, Peterson Institute for International Economics senior fellow and member of the Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee since 2003.

Do the committee members “whisper in the ear” of negotiators? Warren’s staff said she was referring to the confidentiality of communications between the committee members and trade negotiators. Under the law, the USTR can develop rules for disclosing classified and trade-sensitive information to the advisory committee members, who have security clearance as long as they are on the committee.

While the direct meetings take place in private, committees still have to submit written reports to Congress and provide written recommendations and advice that are made public. Still, direct communications with trade negotiators can be shielded from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

The 85 percent figure comes from a 2014 graphic by The Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Wonkblog found that of the 566 people who were on the committee, 480 (85 percent) were from private industry and trade groups (some were nonprofit trade associations). The majority of those members are, indeed, senior-level executives, government-relations representatives or consultants working on behalf of the companies.

Schott said that the industry committees need people who have technical expertise. Tiers 1 and 2 are designed to focus on broader trade issues, and do not get into the same level of detail as Tier 3 committees, he said. Plus, Schott noted, the Tier-1 Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations Members has union representatives.

“If you count all three tiers together, probably a large number are from industries, manufacturing or service committees because that’s the composition of the third-tier committees,” Schott said. “But that’s not the case in the first and second tier, where there is more broad-based representatives from labor and there is a labor advisory committee.”

The Labor Advisory Committee is one of the second-tier committees, comprising labor representatives. There also are non-industry representatives on the first-tier committee that provides general guidance on trade policy. But Thea Lee, AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff, said that the system is still numerically dominated by industry representatives. USTR has opened up positions on the industry committees for representatives from labor and consumer groups, but the approval process has been slow, Lee said.

“Even though labor and environmental groups do also have some access, the majority of those industry-specific advisory groups do not have labor or environmental or consumer representation,” Lee said.

In response to criticisms about transparency and the large representation from industry representatives, USTR announced it would create a Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee to join Tier 2 committees. But the committee has not yet been developed.

The Pinocchio Test

Warren’s criticism of the advisory committees is one that a broad group of labor, environment, consumer and public interest groups have made about the process over the years. But while Warren says the 28 trade advisory committees were “formed” during the TPP drafting process, the committee structure has existed since they were enacted into law in the 1970s.

Her staff says the senator was referring to the renewal and reappointment process, through which the Obama administration shaped the committees, their makeup and access. The committees began giving input on TPP in 2008, before Obama became president. And by law, the committees are renewed as long as there is a need for them — i.e., ongoing negotiations over TPP. Her use of the word “formed” creates a misleading impression for the average voter.

Warren says the committee members are mostly made of corporation and industry representatives, and that they “whisper in the ear” of negotiators. She is referring to the meetings during which committee members provide advice and input in confidence, although the committees still file written reports. And it is true that industry representatives make up a large number of the total membership, but it is worth noting that there is a labor committee in the second tier, labor representatives in the first tier and that the industry groups have a narrow focus (to give technical advice).

Had Warren not said that the committees “formed” during the TPP drafting process, this claim on the whole would have been a mostly true One Pinocchio claim. But that misleading language pushes it to Two.

Two Pinocchios

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