One of the most seemingly compelling arguments against the free-trade legislation now before Congress turns out to be largely bogus.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, opponents contend, is being hammered out behind closed doors, a backroom deal rigged in favor of corporate interests. While the public is kept in the dark, this argument goes, lawmakers are being pressured to grant President Obama “fast-track” authority to bring the treaty to an up-or-down, no-filibuster-allowed vote.
Here’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the subject on PBS’s “NewsHour” the other night: “If the president is confident that this is a great trade deal for American families, then the president should let that trade deal be public. Let the American people see it before we vote . . . to grease the skids to make it much easier to pass this deal with no amendments.”
Warren and allies make two subsidiary points on the shrouded-in-secrecy front. First, that even as the public is excluded, corporate interests are helping shape it behind the scenes in working groups composed overwhelmingly of industry executives and their lobbyists.
“In other words, the people who’ve been whispering in the ear of our negotiators . . . all represent big multinational corporations, not the American worker,” Warren said. “When you have a tilted process, you end up with a tilted outcome.”
Second, that there is no downside to transparency — that the trade deal has already been largely negotiated and that there would be no harm in making its text available. Indeed, Warren said, even President George W. Bush did better: “When he negotiated a trade agreement, he posted it months in advance of asking Congress to give him even partial trade promotion authority to move this thing through quickly.”
Unpack these arguments, and you find more flaws than truth:
● This is not secrecy for secrecy’s sake; it’s secrecy for the sake of negotiating advantage. Exposing U.S. bargaining positions or the offers of foreign counterparts to public view before the agreement is completed would undermine the outcome.
Indeed, extracting the maximum concessions from other countries may not be possible until after Congress grants the fast-track authority to convince foreign competitors that the agreement has a shot. The labor leaders who decry this backroom deal wouldn’t want their collective bargaining negotiations conducted in the public glare.
● This is not secrecy until the end of time; in fact, it’s secrecy with an explicit end. The fast-track trade-promotion authority now being debated in the Senate requires that the underlying trade deal be made public 60 days before signing — the first time such a waiting period has been imposed. Months more will pass before a final congressional vote.
Yes, it will take only a simple majority at that point, but weren’t progressives just last year railing about the filibuster and its abuse? If anything, because fast-track authority is usually granted years in advance, lawmakers being asked to vote on it now know more about what they’ll be getting in the trade deal than is usually the case.
● This is not secrecy that excludes lawmakers. In fact, every one of them can see the text of the still-evolving deal. Many can bring their staffs to the secure facility — at the Capitol — to help them review it. The fast-track legislation contains even more guarantees of transparency going forward, providing for new procedures that would allow staff on the committees that supervise trade deals to review the documents without lawmakers present.
So what about those corporate lobbyists writing the deal behind closed doors? Well, the working groups were established by congressional fiat. The Obama administration has moved to expand the membership to include representatives of labor and environmental groups. It tried to kick lobbyists off — until it was sued for doing so.
As to Warren’s complaint that Bush released the text of a previous trade agreement, the countries involved in the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreed to make initial proposals public. This disclosure was a departure, not the norm — and, by the way, the deal fizzled.
Is the transparency perfect? No. The rules for what staff can see the text, and whether lawmakers need to be present, could be loosened. Perhaps the administration could share more details with the working groups — but, then again, the chief complaint has been that these groups have too much influence, not too little information.
Bottom line: The secrecy argument is mere excuse. The people using it wouldn’t be happy with this trade deal if the negotiations were broadcast live on C-SPAN.