President Obama's nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, was approved yesterday by the Senate. As we had urged, however, lawmakers used the approval process to make sure Froman knows they aren't happy with the former USTR's secretive approach to trade agreements.
Their calls for transparency echo demands EFF and other public interest groups have been making for years in response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade agreements. Earlier this year, for example, EFF joined 24 other civil society groups on a letter to the Trade Representative documenting its abuse of the trade negotiation process and calling for a baseline of transparency.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the Senators who voted against Froman's confirmation yesterday, sent her own letter last week to the nominee, criticizing the "back-room dealmaking" that has until now characterized the process.
Policies that account for the public interest may require more careful drafting than those designed to cater to the corporate interests with access to the secret texts. But in her letter, Warren outlines the drawbacks of that closed negotiation process:
But if members of the public do not have reasonable access to the terms of the agreements under negotiation, then they are unable to offer real input into the process. Without transparency, the benefit from robust democratic participation — an open marketplace of ideas — is considerably reduced.
We agree. Getting feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders helps form policies that enable our access to a free and open Internet. That's not a bug, it's a feature.
Senator Warren's letter also challenged a flawed claim that is defenders of trade secret commonly trot out:
I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Administration's policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant. This argument is exactly backwards. If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States. I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative should too.
Exactly right. The response to public opposition must be more participation by the public—not less.
Also in the last week, Representative Alan Grayson has made comments about an edited version of the TPP that he, as a member of the U.S. Congress, was allowed to read. Those statements reinforce our concerns about the agreement, and make it public scrutiny of it all the more crucial.
Representative Grayson first attacked the text on transparency grounds, calling it "an abuse of the classified information system." "What I saw was nothing that could possibly justify the secrecy that surrounds it."
And Representative Grayson goes on to find serious faults in the content of the agreement itself:
Having seen what I've seen, I would characterize this as a gross abrogation of American sovereignty. And I would further characterize it as 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. But I'm not allowed to tell you why!
The proposed agreement, Representative Grayson concludes, is nothing less than an "assault on democratic government."
The U.S. Trade Representative should respond to these claims, and that response should get to the root of the problem, by giving the public enough information to decide for itself whether or not the text is as dangerous as we fear. The administration wants us to trust it to defend our interests in the trade negotiation process, but we can't determine whether that trust is well-placed without access to the text.
In a hearing earlier this month before Trade Representative Froman's confirmation, Senator Ron Wyden—who has long campaigned for transparency and for policies that benefit a free and open Internet—had an opportunity to ask some questions. Froman's response (emphasis added) was encouraging:
I think it's critically important that we have very good transparency and very good consultations between the administration, between Congress, between key stakeholders and with the public at large.
Let's hope this statement is more than just lip service. Froman is right about the importance of transparency, and his new office has a long way to go to achieve that goal.