Secrecy and Trade Agreements

In the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations are pursuing a bold new trade agreement that promises to boost growth and job creation. However, demands that all draft negotiating texts be made public, expressed most recently in a letter sent to House Democratic Leaders signed by 36 freshmen House Democrats, may cast a harmful shadow over the TPP's promise.

The case for the TPP is simple. As U.S. companies scour the globe for customers with money to spend, the Asia-Pacific region stands out. According to the IMF, the world economy will grow by $21.6 trillion over the next five years, and nearly half of that growth will be in Asia.

Trade agreements like the TPP tear down the tariffs and other barriers that foreign governments erect to shut out U.S. goods and services. Studies by highly regarded think tanks estimate the TPP could boost U.S. exports by $50-100 billion by 2025, generating hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

While the TPP is attractive goal, it's no surprise that debate has arisen over the best path to reach it. The latest example is the freshmen House Democrats' letter lamenting the "extreme secrecy" of the TPP talks.

In fact, as Michael Froman, who was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), recently wrote to Senator Max Baucus, "USTR engages on a daily basis with Members of Congress and Senators and their staffs, not only to ensure the input of the people's representatives into every negotiating position, but also to keep you informed of the substance and progress of the talks. That engagement includes substantive briefings, in person discussion with negotiators, and the sharing of U.S. proposals and negotiating text."

More broadly, calls to make public these confidential negotiating texts are misguided, and dangerous. Just as a high school football coach would never share his playbook with the opposing team, trade negotiators need to protect the confidentiality of their key texts. Disclosure of negotiating texts would risk giving foreign governments a roadmap to U.S. sensitivities and "red lines" that could be used to our disadvantage. It could produce a weaker agreement that isn't in the public interest at all-at significant cost to American workers and companies.

The courts and history lend support for maintaining the confidentiality of such documents. On June 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that USTR may withhold classified papers prepared during trade negotiations.

The court said even revealing positions that the U.S. took in the past "could limit the flexibility of U.S. negotiators" in the future.

Despite these practical constraints, USTR has worked tirelessly to disclose as much information as possible about the TPP talks. Thousands of representatives of civil society, consumer, labor, environmental, and business groups have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with negotiators.

Groups that opposed the TPP from the day it was first proposed are regular participants in these stakeholder meetings and provide ample written input. In fact, those decrying "Obama's covert trade deal" most loudly have been regulars at the TPP's 17 negotiating rounds.

Between negotiating sessions, consultations continue. In addition to its general open door policy, USTR relies on 640 private-sector advisors who serve on 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees as mandated by Congress.

By statute, these committees must "be representative of all industry, labor, agricultural, or service interests (including small business interests)." Similar committees address agriculture, labor, and environmental issues.

Nor do only business representatives participate as trade advisors: Nearly half come from outside the business community.

Top officials of the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, United Steelworkers, and Environmental Defense Fund serve on the President's Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations, which provides executive-level guidance to USTR and the White House. Does anyone think the Steelworkers' Leo Gerard and the Teamsters' James Hoffa sit quietly in these committee meetings?

Finally, while no one should want to share the U.S. playbook for these negotiations with foreign governments, there's no shortage of game tape. All of America's current trade agreements are online, and Congress will only vote on the TPP once legislators and the public are given ample time to review a full, final text.

In sum, Americans from all walks of life are well represented in these consultations. Abandoning these congressionally-created committees and disclosing confidential negotiating texts would mean a weaker hand for U.S. officials at the negotiating table.

If the U.S. is to achieve a TPP agreement that truly benefits American workers and companies, we need transparency-but at times, discretion is the better part of valor.


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