US Should Not Negotiate Free Trade Behind Closed Doors

global tradeMy Comments: Recently I was reminded that I appear to have strong opinions. This is usually accompanied by a rolling of the eyes, and to which I now hang my head, but without shame. On this topic, I’ve not had an opinion worth talking about until now. I hate it when people bitch and moan but can’t be bothered to offer an alternative which might be an improvement. (See GOP arguments against the Affordable Care Act)

Since I don’t have a visceral dislike of Barack Obama and voted for him twice, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when he talks about the need for and benefits of the Trans Pacific Parnership or TPP. If he says it will be good for the US, I’m inclined to believe him.

But I’m also not inclined to ignore the push being made by the likes of Robert Reich, of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I think of them as credible advocates for what is in our best interests going forward.

We do need trade deals to keep the US current with what is happening globally in the 21st century. And we need to make sure that they are focused first on what is best for you and I as citizens America and not just what is best for corporate America. Since the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, then it seems reasonable that we not be discriminated against just because our pockets are not as deep.

The TPP needs a new start with full transparency since, in my opinion, the idea is valid and NOT a total waste of time.

Mark Wu / May 26, 2015 / The Financial Times

Many Americans who think free trade can be good for them nevertheless doubt whether the same can be said for the international trade agreements that are actually being written, often in conditions of secrecy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that the US is negotiating with 11 Pacific Rim countries, is a case in point. Beyond the few paragraphs on the White House website, most Americans have little idea what it contains. Even members of Congress have to go to a secure room in the basement to read the latest negotiating text.

The White House argues that a period of secrecy is necessary, to afford negotiators flexibility to cut deals. Once we have an agreement, officials say, there will be plenty of time for the public to debate its merits — and Congress can reject it. Yet sceptics are not convinced; last week Democratic lawmakers tried to prevent the Senate from so much as discussing a law that would give President Barack Obama broad authority to negotiate a deal.

It does not help that some Americans have greater insight into what is happening than others. The US trade representative consults with about 700 people while negotiations are in progress; most are from the private sector. This advisory system fuels fears that trade deals benefit corporate interests at the expense of ordinary Americans.

As a former trade negotiator, I know that so-called trade promotion authority and some degree of secrecy is vital for getting a deal done. But the current level of secrecy may be going too far. Instead of dismissing critics as misguided, the White House should strike a better balance between retaining flexibility for negotiators and keeping the public informed during the process.

Here are three proposals — developed with my colleague John Stubbs, a former senior adviser to the USTR — that would help restore this balance.

First, the administration should provide better accounts of US negotiating objectives. The EU does this already, publishing a two-page summary of its aims for each chapter of a trade deal, and sometimes releases its own negotiation proposals. By contrast, the USTR publishes only a terse paragraph for each chapter. It should be more forthcoming.

Second, the government should release information about proposals under consideration, provided our negotiating counterparts agree. It should solicit public comments on contentious proposals (there is no need to say which government put forward which proposal). This provides a mechanism to seek input from the broader public, rather than just select advisory group officials.

Finally, government reports of the economic benefits and losses associated with trade deals depend heavily on economic models. While the final reports of government economists are made public, the data and assumptions underlying these models often are not. Why not make that information available as well? Outside experts can re-run the model to show how the economic effects change under different conditions.

None of these proposals would hamper the ability of trade negotiators to do their jobs. Yet all three can help erase worries that the government is hiding something, and restore trust that deals are being negotiated in the broader public interest.

Outdated trade rules need to be revised. But America’s process for formulating trade policy is outdated, too. Citizens should be able to make informed decisions over whether a deal allows Americans to share broadly in the gains from trade. Supporters of trade deals need to realise that they too need to support greater transparency, if they are to rebuild a broader coalition in favour of trade.

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