Free Trade and Secrecy Don't Mix

The Obama administration must open up about key trade deals
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement linking several economies—those of the U.S., Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and eight other Pacific Rim countries, whose output exceeds $28 trillion—is being billed as the largest such pact in U.S. history. Along with another trade deal under way with the European Union, the TPP would create tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S. and help spur growth in the global economy. Not incidentally, it could also provide a much-needed salve to a wounded White House.

But both pacts could founder for some of the same reasons President Obama’s health-care law is in trouble: the administration’s penchant for secrecy and a reluctance to consult lawmakers. The president risks losing both deals unless members of Congress are allowed to help define their contents.

Lawmakers who sit on committees with jurisdiction over trade complain about being in the dark. Some have been allowed to view portions of drafts of the text but never the entire thing. The information blackout has led 151 Democrats and 30 Republicans to oppose giving Obama the fast-track authority he seeks to ratify the trade deals.

That’s a problem. No major trade agreement has been clinched without fast-track legislation, which expired in 2007. It’s a powerful tool that lets the president assure trading partners that what the U.S. has agreed to won’t be undone by lawmakers who dislike some of the parts. Congress gets an up-or-down vote, but it doesn’t get to amend the proposed treaty.

In return for giving up its prerogatives, however, Congress deserves to be clued in. It should play a role in refining the deal’s components, which cover everything from pharmaceutical patents to rules for the Internet. In short, fast-track authority must be earned. So far, Obama hasn’t done that.

The lack of openness was apparent when WikiLeaks released a draft of the TPP’s intellectual-property chapter, complete with the negotiating positions of all 12 countries. One surprise: The U.S. wants to give brand-name drugs more than 20 years of protection against generic competition, potentially raising the cost of treating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases in low-income countries and alarming some public-health advocates.

The administration may cite the controversies such provisions would provoke as a reason for keeping them secret. The U.S. has invited more than 500 corporate advisers to help it negotiate an agreement. Corporations and trade groups, though, don’t represent the broader interests of consumers, workers, environmentalists, and … oh, yes, taxpayers. Theoretically at least, representing them is Congress’s rightful role. Keeping Congress in the dark feeds the perception that the TPP is a special-interest free-for-all.

The TPP and the EU treaties will have more legitimacy, and the odds of Obama getting fast-track authority will grow, if more transparency leads to more debate. Voters and taxpayers shouldn’t have to rely on leaks to find out what’s in a trade treaty.


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