A Fake Debate Over Trade Talks

Let's talk about how trade can lift more boats.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Government secrecy is a far more captivating topic than the failings of intellectual property protections in southeast Asia. So it's hardly a surprise that Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has made secrecy the focus of her latest critique of the most ambitious trade agreement in U.S. history. 

Unfortunately, her charge that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated in secret suffers from two fatal defects. The first is that the deal isn't so secret. The second is that some secrecy is justified. 

Warren is right that talks over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which are at a delicate stage, are taking place out of public view. But members of Congress can read the draft agreement at any time -- which, to her credit, she has.

Meanwhile, environmental, labor and consumer advocates are invited to join advisory committees that guide the U.S.'s position in the talks. Along with corporate executives and other industry representatives, advocates have full access to the latest documents. 

Yes, they must abide by confidentiality rules -- as must members of Congress, who cannot discuss the specifics of the text in public. That's entirely appropriate. Whether negotiating international trade agreements or congressional budget deals, sometimes secrecy is necessary. 

By their very nature, treaty negotiations are usually classified until they're finished. If they weren't, countries wouldn't hand over proprietary data and take political risks. 

Moreover, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says it has held about 1,700 meetings on TPP with lawmakers and their staffs. It provides classified chapter-by-chapter summaries. It has published online its negotiating objectives and an outline of what's been agreed to so far. 

At any rate, the complete text of the deal will be made public before it is voted on -- if Congress passes a bill giving President Barack Obama the authority he needs to negotiate. This so-called fast-track measure, which the Senate could take up as early as this week, directs the president to give Congress 60 days notice before signing an agreement. At that point, he must publish the accord online. Congress can't vote on it for at least another 30 days. 

A couple of years ago, it was a valid argument that the Obama administration was being excessively secretive about the TPP. That is no longer so. Now, the secrecy debate is drowning out any discussion of how the deal plays to U.S. strengths by opening doors to its flourishing agricultural and service sectors. The agreement would make it easier for U.S. companies to compete abroad by limiting government subsidies to state-owned enterprises. No less important, it would bring participating countries closer to U.S. environmental and labor standards. 

In human terms, trade does create winners and losers, the latter group including those whose manufacturing jobs get shipped overseas. Trade's victims deserve public assistance, retraining and education as the economy adjusts. They also deserve a more honest debate over the real costs and benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.