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Guest Columnists

Secrecy, Democracy and the TPP: Trade transparency is what the public wants – and needs

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has received heightened attention in this campaign season, including for the lack of transparency in its negotiating process. Renewed focus on the TPP stems from the information that was disclosed when the trade deal’s full text was finally released last November, as provisions with the potential to cause great harm to U.S. labor, the environment, and public health came to light. 

Despite this disclosure, the TPP and other trade negotiations remain largely shrouded in secrecy. We wrote about this issue on Labor Day 2015, and one year later, demands for greater transparency for controversial trade deals continue to grow louder. 

The TPP is the biggest trade deal in a generation, involving agreements with 12 countries and affecting 40 percent of the world’s economy. Despite its significance, the TPP has been carried out behind doors closed to the public, although representatives from business interests had direct access to the texts and the ability to influence the agreement. 

Restrictions were also put on US members of Congress: if they wanted to view TPP while it was in negotiation, they were threatened with prosecution if they talked about it.

Without actual documents and with members of Congress throttled, the public was left with what little information could be gleaned from the government, and a few drafts published by Wikileaks. When the full text of the TPP came out in November of last year, it was even worse than expected, according to many groups that were monitoring the secretive trade negotiations. It is clear that from workers’ rights, to access to medicine, to food safety to climate change, the impact of the TPP would be felt in some way by every American. The release of the trade text has strengthened opposition and has stalled the progression of the TPP, particularly because the election season has some Congressional candidates listening closely to their constituents’ opposition to the trade deal. 

Public outcry similarly grew over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement between the United States and the European Union after the contents were leaked and published by Greenpeace on May 1. In particular, the public objected to provisions that would give U.S. investors the right to sue for loss of profits resulting from any laws to raise social or environmental standards put into place by the European government. Such provisions were seen to give unprecedented power to corporations at the expense of the environment and public health. 

The United States, it appears, has been the driver of secrecy in international trade negotiations. In response to public pressure, the European Union began publishing draft textual proposals and other information related to TTIP in 2015. The U.S., on the other hand, has refused to publish any of its own draft textual proposals, despite requests from Congress that they do so. 

One thing has been clear: democracy is served by transparency. In those instances when access to information about the secretive trade deals has been provided, heightened public awareness and enhanced public participation in the decision-making process have followed. 

The fate of the TPP remains unclear, but there are several steps the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) can take to ensure that the public is better-informed in future trade negotiations. 

In May, OpenTheGovernment.org (OTG) and eight other open government groups submitted recommendations for the USTR 2016 open government plan. Specifically, the agency should: publish U.S. textual proposals on rules in ongoing international trade negotiations; publish consolidated text after each round of ongoing negotiations; and appoint a “transparency officer” who does not have structural conflicts of interest in promoting transparency at the agency. 

President Obama has warned Congress that a bill to ratify the TPP is imminent. Public interest advocates will continue to fight the deal, but in the future, it is crucial that the American public be given insight into trade negotiations before agreements reach such a late stage. Secrecy breeds mistrust, and if the government hopes to secure broad public support for its trade deals, it must stop conducting major trade negotiations almost entirely behind closed doors. The American public has a right to know what the government is doing in our name, particularly when the consequences are so far-reaching.

Patrice McDermott is the Executive
Director and Emily Manna is Policy Associate at OpenTheGovernment.org

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