Extreme secrecy eroding support for Obama's trade pact
Updated On: Feb 05, 2018
Classified briefings and bill-readings in basement rooms are making members queasy
If you want to hear the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the Obama administration is hoping to pass, you’ve got to be a member of Congress, and you’ve got to go to classified briefings and leave your staff and cellphone at the door.
If you’re a member who wants 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.
And no matter what, you can’t discuss the details of what you’ve read.
“It’s like being in kindergarten,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who’s become the leader of the opposition to President Barack Obama’s trade agenda. “You give back the toys at the end.”
For those out to sink Obama’s free trade push, highlighting the lack of public information is becoming central to their opposition strategy: The White House isn’t even telling Congress what it’s asking for, they say, or what it’s already promised foreign governments.
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.
Officials from the White House and the United States trade representative’s office say they’ve gone farther than ever before to provide Congress the information it needs and that the transparency complaints are just the latest excuse for people who were never going to vote for a new trade deal anyway.
“We’ve worked closely with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to balance unprecedented access to classified documents with the appropriate level of discretion that’s needed to ensure Americans get the best deal possible in an ongoing, high-stakes international negotiation,” said USTR spokesman Matt McAlvanah.
Obama’s seeking 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 says he needs that authority to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country free trade agreement that he calls essential to stopping China from setting trade, labor and environmental standards in the Asia-Pacific region.
Administration aides say they can’t make the details public because the negotiations are still going on with multiple countries at once; if for example, Vietnam knew what the American bottom line was with Japan, that might drive them to change their own terms. Trade might not seem like a national security issue, they say, but it is (and foreign governments regularly try to hack their way in to American trade deliberations).
Moreover, many of the leaders of the opposition, administration aides argue, are people who aren’t used to dealing with classified information and don’t realize how standard this secrecy is. And by the way, they note, neither congressional conference committees nor labor contract talks allow even this level of access to negotiations while in process.
But those arguments aren’t making much headway among trade skeptics, who feel they are being treated with disrespect and condescension. And they increasingly are pinning the blame directly on United States Trade Representative Mike Froman, who’s been headlining the classified briefings, in addition to smaller meetings with members.
“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.”
Asked about those criticisms, Froman responded by praising his adversaries.
“I have great respect for the critics, many of whom have shown great leadership on progressive causes, and I look forward to a continued dialogue with members of Congress based on facts and substance,” Froman told POLITICO.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who supports giving Obama fast-track authority, says the division among Democrats is between members who are looking for a reason to say no and those that are actually trying to work on the deal.
“They’ve been very engaging with Congress and to members who want to be in the room and engaging them on the text … so we can ask questions but, more importantly, so we can provide input,” Kind said.
As for Froman, Kind said, “he’s very cordial, he’s very respectful and listening to other people’s opinion. … I don’t get a sense of condescension and arrogance.”
Kind says he expects several more Democrats to announce their support for the president’s efforts in the coming days, some of them because of what they’ve heard from Froman.
Doggett insisted that the outreach is costing the White House support.
“The more people hear Ambassador Froman but feel they get less than candid and accurate answers, I think it loses votes for them,” Doggett said.
Administration officials point to other members who’ve publicly praised Froman for his responsiveness and his accessibility. Those include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who at a late April news conference called Froman a “remarkable, remarkable trade rep” who’s “just fabulous, and he’s been just boundless in his willingness to spend time with members to go through this.”
Pelosi herself remains undecided on the trade pact, though she says she’s trying to find a path to yes. She’s telling members what she’s told them from the start: They’re going to be able to influence the deal only if they actually engage with Froman and the White House.
In February, it was Pelosi who urged the administration to begin the briefings, warning that Democratic support was nowhere near what the White House would need for fast-track to pass the House.
Obama has started to get 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.”