(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)
The Senate today is holding a key procedural vote that would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be “fast-tracked.”
So who can read the text of the TPP? Not you, it’s classified. Even members of Congress can only look at it one section at a time in the Capitol’s basement, without most of their staff or the ability to keep notes.
But there’s an exception: if you’re part of one of 28 U.S. government-appointed trade advisory committees providing advice to the U.S. negotiators. The committees with the most access to what’s going on in the negotiations are 16 “Industry Trade Advisory Committees,” whose members include AT&T, General Electric, Apple, Dow Chemical, Nike, Walmart and the American Petroleum Institute.
The TPP is an international trade agreement currently being negotiated between the US and 11 other countries, including Japan, Australia, Chile, Singapore and Malaysia. Among other things, it could could strengthen copyright laws, limit efforts at food safety reform and allow domestic policies to be contested by corporations in an international court. Its impact is expected to be sweeping, yet venues for public input hardly exist.
Industry Trade Advisory Committees, or ITACs, are cousins to Federal Advisory Committees like the National Petroleum Council that I wrote about recently. However, ITACs are functionally exempt from many of the transparency rules that generally govern Federal Advisory Committees, and their communications are largely shielded from FOIA in order to protect “third party commercial and/or financial information from disclosure.” And even if for some reason they wanted to tell someone what they’re doing, members must sign non-disclosure agreements so they can’t “compromise” government negotiating goals. Finally, they also escape requirements to balance their industry members with representatives from public interest groups.
The result is that the Energy and Energy Services committee includes the National Mining Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance but only one representative from a company dedicated to less-polluting wind and solar energy.
The Information and Communications Technologies, Services, and Electronic Commerce committee includes representatives from Verizon and AT&T Services Inc. (a subsidiary of AT&T), which domestically are still pushing hard against new net neutrality rules that stop internet providers from creating more expensive online fast-lanes.
And the Intellectual Property Rights committee includes the Recording Industry Association of America, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Apple, Johnson and Johnson and Yahoo, rather than groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which shares the industry’s expertise in intellectual property policy but has an agenda less aligned with business.
Maira Sutton, a global policy analyst with the EFF, points to the Recording Industry Association of America as an organization that has been “very much in favor of copyright term extensions and limiting fair use.” The pact could make it difficult for countries to shorten copyright terms that currently extend long past an author’s life, or for artists to repurpose copyrighted material to make art or music. Apple, Sutton notes, is notorious for creating technology that comes riddled with restrictions on what users and programmers can do with them, a practice that could be bolstered in the TPP.
There does exist a Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee and a Labor Advisory Committee, but their members are far outnumbered by those from industry. A Washington Post analysis from February 2014 noted, “Of the 566 committee members [in the 28 committees], 306 come from private industry and an additional 174 hail from trade associations. All told they represent 85% of the voices on the trade committees.”
Last year the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the part of the executive branch that runs trade negotiations, proposed creating a Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee, but civil society groups widely refused to participate in a process that would muzzle them from talking about what they saw in the trade agreement.
“It’s hard to have influence if you have 20 people from the industry and one from civil society. There’d have to be a pretty serious effort to achieve more balance,” says Karen Hansen-Kuhn, director of international strategies for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based organization that is concerned about food safety and farming-related provisions of the agreement. (I worked as an intern at the IATP in 2011).
“The best outcome would be if Congress were to put in place a new system. So [in future negotiations], when negotiating objectives are laid out, at a certain point Congress would weigh in on whether those objectives have been met,” Hansen-Kuhn says. “If fast track is rejected I think it opens the possibility of doing things differently.”
UPDATE: Today’s procedural vote failed. The Senate tally fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to allow debate to begin on fast-track legislation.
Photo of President Barack Obama leaving after speaking about trade policy at Nike Headquarters on May 8, 2015 in Beaverton, Oregon. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)