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DEEPLINKS BLOG

Consumers Press the USTR Nominee on Trade Transparency

March 22, 2017

Even before U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) nominee Robert Lighthizer takes office, he’s already feeling the heat from Congress and from public interest representatives about improving transparency and public access to trade negotiations.

In written answers given as part of Lighthizer’s confirmation hearing last week, Senator Ron Wyden asked him, “What specific steps will you take to improve transparency and consultations with the public?”. Lighthizer’s reply (which he repeated in similar form in response to similar questions from other Senators) was as follows:

If confirmed, I will ensure that USTR follows the TPA [Trade Promotion Authority, aka. Fast Track] requirements related to transparency in any potential trade agreement negotiation. I will also look forward to discussing with you ways to ensure that USTR fully understands and takes into account the views of a broad cross-section of stakeholders, including labor, environmental organizations, and public health groups, during the course of any trade negotiation. My view is that we can do more in this area to ensure that as we formulate and execute our trade policy, we receive fulsome input and have a broad and vigorous dialogue with the full range of stakeholders in our country.

Senator Maria Cantwell sought to drill down into more specifics, by having Lighthizer address the skewed Trade Advisory Committees that currently advise the USTR. In response to her question:

Do you agree that it is problematic for a select group of primarily corporate elites to have special access to shape US trade proposals that are not generally available to American workers and those impacted by our flawed trade deals?

Lighthizer replied:

It is important that USTR’s Trade Advisory Committees represent all types of stakeholders to ensure that USTR benefits fully from a diverse set of viewpoints in considering the positions it takes in negotiations. If confirmed, I will work to ensure that USTR’s Trade Advisory Committees are appropriately constituted in order to achieve this goal.

Cantwell also invited Lighthizer to commit to replacing the advisory system with a new process that invites the American public to help shape U.S. proposals for trade agreements and give input on negotiated texts, as well as to having all proposals and negotiated texts published online in a timely fashion so the workers and the broader public that will be impacted by these agreements have a full understanding of what is being negotiated.

He declined to do so, going only so far as to say that he would look forward to discussing “additional means for ensuring public input into U.S. trade negotiations”, as well as “ways to ensure that USTR fully understands and takes into account the views of all stakeholders during the course of a trade negotiation”.

This rather vague commitment certainly doesn’t close the door on the administration adopting the kind of reforms that EFF has demanded, but it also suggests that we will have to continue fighting hard for them to avoid yet another cop-out by the agency.

Trans-Atlantic Consumer Groups Speak Out

Thankfully, we’re not alone in that fight. EFF has just returned from the annual public forum of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), a forum of U.S. and European consumer groups, of which we are a member. This diverse group released a Positive Consumer Agenda for trade which includes the following demands:

Any regulatory cooperation dialogue and trade negotiation must be transparent. Agendas of the meetings and rounds must be made publicly available well in advance as well as negotiating documents and minutes of meetings and rounds. For trade negotiations, negotiations should not begin until all parties agree to publish their textual proposals as well as consolidated negotiating texts after each round on publicly available websites. …

US positions on trade deals can be formulated the way other US federal regulations are: through an on-the-record public process established under the Administrative Procedure Act to formulate positions, obtain comments on draft texts throughout negotiations, and seek comments on proposed final texts. In the European Union, the Commission should open a public consultation when drafting negotiating mandates to mirror the legislative process.

Trade Isn’t the Right Tool For Every Internet Problem

A third front in our battle to reform the USTR’s closed and opaque trade negotiation practices is in a submission to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) that we submitted this week. The ITC was seeking public submissions in an enquiry on digital trade, to gather input into a report that it is writing to advise the USTR on the topic.

The submission reiterates our demands that the USTR publish its proposals, publish draft texts, have an independent transparency officer, open up proposals to notice and comments and a public hearing process, and open up Trade Advisory Committees to be more inclusive. But it also points out that the USTR shouldn’t consider trade negotiations as the right tool to regulate every aspect of the Internet that touches on trade:

Whereas the Commission aims to describe regulatory and policy measures currently in force in important markets abroad that may significantly impede digital trade, our bottom line is that not all such measures that impede digital trade are necessarily protectionist. … [They may] also have important non-trade justifications that serve broader social and economic needs such as freedom of expression and access to information, consumer safety and privacy, and preservation of the stability and security of Internet networks.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail—and the USTR has been hammering away like mad at topics as diverse as net neutrality, domain names, encryption standards, and intermediary liability. But because there are many other dimensions of these issues besides the trade dimension, trade negotiations aren’t necessarily the best venue to address them; and certainly not while those negotiations remain as closed and opaque as they are at present.

As the renegotiation of NAFTA is around the corner, the need for USTR to reform its outdated practices is becoming increasingly urgent. With Congress, consumer groups, and international trade experts all demanding similar reforms from the next Trade Representative, we certainly hope that Robert Lighthizer is feeling the heat, and that he will rise to the challenge once he takes office.

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