New round of trade talks keep public in dark, but not lobbyists

All six of Oregon’s Congressional Democrats sent letters to the nation’s highest-ranking trade official last month demanding greater transparency in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations.  The TPP is poised to become the country’s largest free trade agreement ever.

Despite having proposed text for some 26 separate chapters — affecting everything from jobs and the environment to consumer safety and banking regulations — U.S. negotiators have refused to tell the public what they’ve been proposing and have even limited Congressional access to TPP proposals.

“The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations — like Halliburton, Chevron, PhRMA, Comcast and the Motion Picture Association of America — are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in late May, as he introduced legislation requiring the U.S. trade representative to share TPP texts with Congress.

In a letter sent to U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk on June 25, senators Wyden and Jeff Merkley pointed out that TPP “will create binding policies on future Congresses in numerous areas where there is significant public interest, including policies related to labor, environment and natural resources, land use, food, agriculture and product standards, intellectual property rights, state-owned enterprises and government procurement policies, as well as financial, health care, energy, telecommunications and other service sector regulations.” The letter asked “that the USTR provide the public with detailed information and consistent updates on what USTR is seeking in the TPP.”

Wyden chairs the Senate Trade Subcommittee charged with overseeing U.S. trade policy, and until recently, had been barred from reviewing any TPP proposals. Even now, he can only access TPP documents on a “read and retain basis” — meaning in a private room without making copies, taking notes or sharing text with staff (who, themselves, have high-level security clearances). Meanwhile, hundreds of corporate lobbyists have been granted “cleared adviser” status that gives them online access to draft TPP texts at their leisure from anywhere in the country.

“Not allowing the public to comment on specific U.S. proposals for the TPP until after the multi-year negotiations have concluded and the deal is signed is outrageously bad policy-making procedure,” said Arthur Stamoulis, director of the labor-backed Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. “I’m proud that Oregon’s Congressional delegation is leading the calls for transparency. The fact that approximately 600 corporate lobbyists have access to the TPP negotiating texts, while the public does not, frankly reeks of corruption. It’s time for USTR to release the texts.”

One-hundred-thirty-three members of the U.S. House, including Oregon Reps. Early Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, and Kurt Schrader, sent a letter to Kirk urging greater opportunities for public and Congressional oversight of the TPP.  Organizational and constituent requests that GOP Rep. Greg Walden also add his name to the letter went unanswered.

The House letter points out precedents for transparency in trade negotiations, including that the World Trade Organization (WTO) regularly posts draft texts on its website and that the Bush Administration published draft text of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) back in 2001.

More than 42,000 Americans signed a TPP transparency petition that was delivered to U.S. negotiators during the 12th major round of TPP negotiations  in May. The 13th major round of talks began this week in San Diego.

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