WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced legislation late Wednesday to protest the Obama administration's refusal to share information about controversial trade negotiations with the senator.
The administration's blockade against Wyden, who chairs a subcommittee on international trade, conflicts with its prior statements to the press, and raises concerns that President Barack Obama's administration is selectively icing out critics of the administration's trade strategy.
Wyden said that his office was locked out of information about a trade pact in the works known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal, which involves eight other Pacific nations, includes broad details on government contracting terms that would ban "Buy American" preferences for U.S. manufacturers, and intellectual property standards that would increase prescription drug prices abroad. Those positions have drawn criticism from American labor unions, domestic manufacturers and international public health advocates.
But while the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative shares draft negotiation documents on the Trans-Pacific deal with the governments of other nations and American corporate executives who serve on advisory boards, it withholds them from the American public and most nonprofit groups -- forcing many public health advocates, for instance, to learn about the deals through illegal leaks or informal channels.
"The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations -- like Halliburton, Chevron, PhRMA, Comcast and the Motion Picture Association of America -- are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement," said Wyden.
Bipartisan congressional tension surrounding the Trans-Pacific deal has been building for the past month. More than 60 House Democrats and one House Republican sent a letter to Obama objecting to the "Buy American" ban on May 3. On May 15, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called for more transparency in the negotiation process and leaked the entire draft intellectual property chapter from the Trans-Pacific deal to the public on his website. Although the document previously was available over the Internet through legally ambiguous channels, Issa's move dramatically increased political pressure on the administration to share more information about the deal with the public.
Publicly, the administration said it shares information on the trade pact with all members of Congress.
"U.S. TPP documents are available to members of Congress representing all Americans," USTR told HuffPost on May 16 in a statement. USTR also told HuffPost it works to keep nonprofit groups abreast of its position and give them input into the negotiation process.
But Wyden's office said the administration has only shared that information with about 12 members of Congress, advancing legal arguments that the only members of Congress permitted to see trade documents are those in the Congressional Oversight Group. According to Wyden's office, a 2002 law requires the administration to share trade documents with all members of Congress. His legislation would make that obligation even more explicit.
USTR representatives were not available for comment on Wyden's bill.
Like Issa, Wyden spent much of 2011 opposing new intellectual property standards from the Stop Online Piracy Act that Internet experts warned would stifle online innovation and threaten the functionality of the web. Internet freedom groups and tech companies have been critical of the positions advanced by the U.S. in the Trans-Pacific deal, leading many in Washington to assume that Wyden opposes the agreement.
Wyden's office detailed the Obama administration's obstruction in a statement provided to HuffPost.
"Months ago, we were told our staffer could only view the documents if he got a clearance," Wyden spokesperson Jennifer Hoelzer told HuffPost in an email.
"So, he applied for the appropriate security clearance which was completed two months ago. Now, after two months of back and forth to try and get this resolved, it seems that the Administration is interpreting that 2002 law to say that only members on the Congressional Oversight Group or who work for members of the COG are allowed to see the agreements. If that is in fact their interpretation, it means that neither Senator Wyden nor his trade subcommittee staff are allowed to review documents pertaining to trade agreements."
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