WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has loosened some of its most stringent secrecy policies surrounding a controversial set of free trade negotiations, but the Democratic chair of a Senate subcommittee on international trade is demanding far greater transparency provisions -- and garnering Republican support for his effort.
In late May, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on International Trade, introduced new legislation that would require the White House to share trade documents with all members of Congress and their qualified staff. The move was largely a symbolic act of protest against the secrecy the White House has imposed on a new trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The agency responsible for trade negotiations -- the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative -- had denied Wyden office access to any of the draft documents involved in the trade pact, offering an unusual legal argument that only a handful of members of Congress were permitted to view them. After Wyden introduced his legislation, however, USTR partially relented, allowing Wyden to see the documents, but not his staff.
That's better than nothing, Wyden spokeswoman Jennifer Hoelzer told HuffPost, but not helpful from a practical standpoint, given that congressional staff perform much of the legislative work on Capitol Hill.
"I would point out how insulting it is for them to argue that members of Congress are to personally go over to USTR to view the trade documents," Hoelzer said. "An advisor at Halliburton or the MPAA is given a password that allows him or her to go on the USTR website and view the TPP agreement anytime he or she wants."
The general public and most nonprofit organizations have no access to the documents, although a number of corporate officials can see them.
USTR told HuffPost that members of Congress can "be accommodated at an appropriate location on Capitol Hill" and said, "We are continuing to work directly with Senator Wyden and his staff to be responsive to the concerns he raises about TPP transparency, and are glad to be doing so; this is an important conversation."
USTR's refusal to share documents with congressional staffers has also raised the hackles of Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who agreed to co-sponsor Wyden's bill after his own staffer was turned away.
"When our staff requested to review the TPP on behalf of the senator, even staff with what we consider to be appropriate clearance were denied access," Burr spokesman David Ward told HuffPost.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been more aggressive, leaking the entire text of the draft intellectual property chapter to the public on his website. Although the document had previously been available over the internet through legally dubious channels, Issa's posting was viewed as a political shot across the bow.
Public health experts and internet freedom advocates have bemoaned both the secretive negotiation process and the actual terms of the trade pact, which they claim threaten to drive up global medicine prices and curb online innovation.
Wyden and Issa are widely viewed as Capitol Hill allies of the tech community as a result of their efforts to block the Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate partner, the Protect IP Act. The administration's refusal to share Trans-Pacific documents with Wyden for months sparked concern that Obama was selectively freezing out critics of the deal from the talks.
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