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Over 130 members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk asking for more transparency in the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. Chief among their concerns was the lack of consultation with Congress.
Given the broad range of policies the TPP is expected to impact—including those outside the realm of “traditional trade matters” such as innovation, regulation, the Internet, and intellectual property—their concern is well founded.
The 130 Representatives urge the USTR to “engage in broader and deeper consultations with members of the full range of committees of Congress whose jurisdiction touches on the wide-ranging issues involved.” Since the US would be obligated to comply with the norms established by the TPP, the Representatives rightly express concern for the long-term implications of its content. Not only would the US need to alter existing law, but wouldn’t be able to change those laws in the future without re-negotiating the TPP.
The letter also compares the level of consultation with Congress to the level of consultation with private business interests. Businesses have significantly greater access to proposed TPP text than not only small businesses and civil society, but Congress itself. While allowing industries to present their perspective is not bad policy, doing so while shutting out the public’s voice is.
In the letter, the Representatives ask for a copy of the confidentiality agreement that the USTR signed with other negotiating countries and an explanation of how the agreement came to be imposed. The letter also points to similar trade agreements that have been released as full drafts to the public to allow for comment, and urges the USTR to work with other countries to agree to release copies of the negotiating text to the public.
A similar letter was released by a group of senators on Monday. That letter spoke in broader terms about the importance of transparency in trade agreement negotiations. It also provided a number of recommendations: first, that the Industry Trade Advisory Committee for Intellectual Property Rights be expanded to include civil society as well as industry representatives, and second, that an additional committee be created to focus on internet freedom.
PK has also criticized the TPP negotiations for a lack of transparency. While the USTR claims to provide a forum for input from civil society through stakeholder events, the value of such input is significantly diminished when the participating organizations do not have access to negotiating documents.
Other than guessing what provisions will be or accessing leaked documents, stakeholders have no way to know when provisions will affect them. Increased transparency is vital to allowing participation from the public. Although increased transparency toward Congress is an important step, these documents must also be available to the public if trade policy is to reflect the will of the people.