The only thing transparent about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the extent to which its proponents will go to ensure that few know what is contained within it. There is no greater proof of this than the current battle over an unbelievably undemocratic process known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), better known as fast-track legislation.
Having spent more than two decades in Washington, D.C. working either in or with Congress I learned the valuable lesson of hiding behind process and using procedural maneuvers to thwart the will of the majority, whether it is the Members or the public. Yvon Chouinard, the rock climber, environmentalist, and outdoor industry businessman who founded Patagonia once intoned "how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top". Congress and the Administration, in a rare show of bipartisanship, are maneuvering towards a monumental decision to cast a vote on a procedure that will radically shape 40 percent of the world economy for decades to come.
The maneuver, TPA, essentially dictates that an enormously contentious and complex set of negotiations (TPP), covering 29 chapters (only 5 dealing with trade) and written by legions of industry lobbyists whose special interests are directly affected by the outcome will be subjected to one vote, either up or down, with no ability to modify or amend any of the provisions. In fact, the audacity of the proponents can no more succinctly or cynically be summed up than in the words of the previous Obama Administration Trade Negotiator, Ron Kirk, who once remarked to Reuters that it was important people not know what was in it because it would be impossible to pass.
This is not the kind of transparency the majority of voters had in mind when they voted for hope and change. And if we reach the top of the mountain by shedding the weight of protective gear that keeps us safe from the elements we very well may end up freezing. Yes, process does matter and is more important than product.
There are serious policy issues that raise troubling questions about the TPP. Twenty-four years ago the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution at their annual meeting in San Diego in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement in part due to the fast track process but even more importantly on the lack of strong labor and environmental protections. I was the author of the resolution opposing NAFTA as the staff person for the Urban Economic Policy Committee and it reflected a real desire of the nation's Mayors to ensure not only free trade but fair trade. TPP has been called "NAFTA on steroids" and incredibly the labor and environmental shortcomings, among others, are once again being cited as inadequate to the notion of fair trade. Have we learned nothing?
Without focusing on the substantive inadequacies however I think it is far more important to question the need for short-circuiting the normal processes of legislating in order to secure a product that will have such pervasive influence on the world economic order. Just this week Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren released a report analyzing the various free trade agreements reaching back to and including NAFTA. It pointedly documents the inability of the rhetoric used to support them to measure up to the reality of what they wrought.
This is an extremely important addition to the discussion underway in Congress and it should raise suspicions over the rush to sneak through under cover of procedural darkness a series of provisions that may very well exacerbate the huge inequality gap that is gripping economies across the globe.
If the process to date has indeed disproportionately favored large corporate interests at the expense of the rest of us then we should know that and Congress ought to be able to change it. But following up with a process that makes a mockery of the deliberative ideals embodied in our constitutional framework only serves to reinforce cynicism and frustration in an already suspicious electorate.
Just trust us, even in the best of times, is not a winning tactic. In these times, however, it is a sure loser. Let it be examined in the full sunlight of transparency and let the chips fall where they may. That is the democratic process.
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