WASHINGTON -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Wednesday that she will vote against President Obama's top international trade nominee Michael Froman, over his refusal to make negotiations over a major trade agreement more transparent to the public.
"I am voting against Mr. Froman’s nomination later today because I believe we need a new direction from the Trade Representative -- A direction that prioritizes transparency and public debate," Warren said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "The American people have the right to know more about the negotiations that will have dramatic impact on the future of the American economy. And that will have a dramatic impact on our working men and women, on the environment, on the Internet."
Warren has been pressing the Obama administration to release more information on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement with 10 other nations that has been in the works for about three years. Members of Congress have been given only limited access to negotiation documents, which the administration has labeled classified, barring them from discussing the specific terms of the deal with outside experts or their constituents.
The only public information on the agreements has come from leaks. Consumer advocates, public health experts and environmentalists have decried a Trans-Pacific document leaked in the summer of 2012 that would allow corporations to directly challenge government laws and regulations in international courts. Similar language was included in the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, and has been used by major corporations to challenge Canadian regulations against fracking, pesticides and offshore oil drilling.
Unelected corporate officials and some representatives from organized labor, environmental groups and consumer advocates have also been given access to negotiation documents due to their status as "cleared advisors" on official trade panels. There are about 500 corporate officials who can see trade documents, and about 100 representatives of other public interest groups, but the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has not disclosed what information different advisors can access. The head of the labor advisory panel complained to USTR in a recent letter that it was being confronted with "severe restrictions" when attempting to access information on the deal.
Last week, Warren sent a letter to Froman asking whether he would make negotiation texts available to the public, or provide clarity on what information different "cleared advisors" access. Warren said Wednesday that Froman declined to do so.
"Mr. Froman’s response was clear: No, no, no," Warren said. "He will not commit to make this information available so the public can track what is going on."
Warren's decision to vote against Froman, who Obama nominated to replace outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, comes as progressives in Congress are amplifying pressure on the administration to change course on trade policy. In a Monday interview with HuffPost, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) criticized the Obama administration's secrecy policies on the Trans-Pacific Pact, calling it an "abuse of the classified information system." Grayson further said that the draft agreement would undermine democratic governance to the benefit of multinational corporations -- but he could not speak on specific policies since the terms of the deal are considered classified.
"It's all about tying the hands of democratically elected governments, and shunting authority over to the nonelected for the benefit of multinational corporations," Grayson said. "It's an assault on democratic government."
USTR declined to comment, but has said in the past that secrecy is required to ensure that it can negotiate the best deal possible for Americans. Warren addressed that line of reasoning in her floor speech.
"I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant," Warren said. "In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it. This argument is exactly backwards. If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States."