Trans-Pacific Partnership Round 13: In The Interest of Transparency…
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San Diego: On the eve of the 13th round of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, we can’t help but notice that there is a lot of chatter on the web about these talks being shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Some accounts give the impression that the TPP is being crafted by a handful of government officials located in a secure bunker at an undisclosed location.
A good start for a Robert Ludlum novel, but not even close to the truth.
Like so many civil society, consumer, labor, environmental, and business groups, the U.S. Chamber has been very engaged in the TPP negotiating process since its beginning. I personally have been to TPP rounds in San Francisco, Chicago, Melbourne, Dallas, and now in San Diego. There has been one consistent theme at every round I have attended: the inclusion of all these stakeholders in briefings and events under an official invitation from the host government.
Whether you love the TPP or hate it — whether you represent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — “stakeholder” has meant everyone. We all get invited, we all are given the same badge, and we are all afforded the same unprecedented level of access to negotiators.
The TPP governments, often pushed by the USTR, have gone out of their way to make their officials available to civil society writ large, which is what makes charges of secrecy particularly misleading. Never before has there been such a concerted effort to discuss the policy and progress of a trade negotiation with such a large swathe of people and organizations. In fact, negotiators have been heard to express concerns that this new level of stakeholder interaction has left precious little time to actually negotiate.
To date, there have been more than 1,000 registered stakeholders at the various TPP rounds, and close to one hundred presentations have been given to an audience of TPP negotiators. Government negotiators and stakeholders can interact at networking receptions and briefing sessions in topical stakeholder/negotiator rooms as well as private meetings.
Between negotiating rounds, consultations continue. USTR is widely viewed in the business community as one of the most — if not the most — accessible of federal agencies. In addition to the agency’s general open door policy, USTR relies on private sector advisors who serve on 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees as mandated by Congress in the Trade Act of 1974. According to statute, these committees must “be representative of all industry, labor, agricultural, or service interests (including small business interests).”
Similar committees address agricultural trade; others address labor and environmental issues. The President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN) provides executive-level guidance to the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House on the full breadth of U.S. trade policy.
There are 640 participants in these groups, which include representatives of the U.S. Chamber and other business groups, but nearly half of the members come from outside the business community. Labor groups such as the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the United Steelworkers are part of ACTPN, the most senior committee, as is the Environmental Defense Fund.
In short, this is a robust system for consultation with civil society — and its structure and workings were established by Congress.
Oddly, much of the criticism over transparency is coming from groups that have been regularly participating in this outreach. These longtime critics of U.S. trade agreements have attended every stakeholder round. They meet with the same negotiators we do, get the same access to the discussions as we do, and attend the same briefings. Though it’s clear these groups decided to oppose the TPP the moment the United States announced its intention to join the negotiations, they have been given the opportunity to be informed and represent their interests.
Conspiracy theories and demonization make for great theatre. However, there is too much at stake for us to give in to fear mongering. As the Asia-Pacific region assumes a vastly greater role in the world economy, it is in the U.S. national interest to have access to its growing markets, and the TPP will play a key role in reaching this goal. The stakes are high.
We need transparency — and we’ve got it. But we also could do with more honesty.