To learn the actual details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the Obama administration is hoping to pass, you must be a member of Congress, attend classified briefings and leave your staff and cellphone at the door.
But that only covers talking about the deal.
If you want to read the text, you’ve got to go to a room in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center and be handed it one section at a time, watched over as you read, and forced to hand over any notes you make before leaving.
Just don’t plan on discussing what you’ve seen because that is strictly illegal.
“It’s like being in kindergarten,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who’s has been leading opposition to President Barack Obama’s trade agenda. “You give back the toys at the end.”
The White House isn’t even telling Congress what it’s asking for or what it’s already promised foreign governments.
Yet the White House has been coordinating an administration-wide lobbying effort that’s included phone calls and briefings from Secretary of State John Kerry, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and others. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has been working members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has been talking to members of his home state Texas delegation.
It’s a full court press for something few people know about much less the details of.
The White House and the United States trade representative’s office are blatantly lying to the American people by insisting they’ve gone farther than ever before to provide Congress the information it needs. Yet the level of secrecy is unprecedented.
It’s about power
Obama’s looking for a renewal of fast-track authority, which would empower him to negotiate trade deals that then go to Congress for up-or-down votes but not amendments. He’s purposely trying to strip democracy from the process in an effort to build his personal legacy and repay favors from rich part donors.
Administration aides claim they can’t make the details public because the negotiations are still going on with multiple countries at once. They also make the ever more frequent argument that trade is a national security issue.
Yet people are seeing through the lies. Officials are increasingly feeling they are being treated with disrespect and condescension. United States Trade Representative Mike Froman, who’s been headlining the classified briefings, in addition to smaller meetings with members, is getting much of the blame.
“The access to information is totally at the whim of Ambassador Froman,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who’s a hard no on fast track but says he’d like to see other ways of promoting international trade. “He likes to make available information that he thinks helps his case, and if it conflicts, then he doesn’t make the information available,” Doggett said.
Doggett, like other critics, pointed out that the cover sheets of the trade documents in that basement room are marked only “confidential document” and note they’re able to be transmitted over unsecured email and fax — but for some reason are still restricted to members of Congress.
“My chief of staff who has a top secret security clearance can learn more about ISIS or Yemen than about this trade agreement,” Doggett said.
“He’s incredibly condescending. It’s like, ‘You’d be all for this if only you hadn’t gotten an F in economics,’” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who said he’s opposed to what he’s seen because it lacks labor standards and measures to address currency manipulation.
“We know when we’re being suckered,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who said he believes that the USTR quotes percentages instead of absolute values on trade statistics that give an overly positive impression. “It’s not only condescending, it’s misleading.”
As support deteriorates at home, Obama has become more personally engaged trying to shore up support for the deal. The president hosted a White House meeting Thursday with members of the New Democrat Coalition, who are generally inclined to support him on trade but still pressed him to make more information available.
“He emphasized that under the trade promotion bills, this is going to be the most transparent bill ever,” said Kind, who attended.
Two days earlier, speaking at the news conference he held in the Rose Garden with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama dismissed “this whole notion that it’s all secret.”
“They’re going to have 60 days before I even sign it to look at the text, and then a number of months after that before they have to take a final vote,” Obama said forcefully.
“He’s indignant when we say it’s secret,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). “Maybe there’s some definition of secrecy he knows that I don’t know.”