I've just returned from another round of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact negotiations, held in Leesburg, Virginia. This 14th round was closer to home in Washington, D.C., but the meeting place -- the Lansdowne Resort -- was a world apart from the bustling capital city.
Isolated by 45 holes of championship golf and powdered with tight security, the resort was an ideal location for government trade negotiators hoping to write trade laws in secrecy.
Transparency. I've asked for it before, Members of Congress have echoed the calls, and even Sierra Club's president called the lack of openness an "affront to democracy." Simply put, governments shouldn't be hashing out massive agreements that would impact every aspect of our lives in the shadows.
In the ten days of negotiations, the only opportunities for public input were short presentations and tabling sessions from registered stakeholders, which overlapped inconveniently. Additionally, a large conference room held representatives from each negotiating nation and a couple hundred stakeholders for a briefing of watered-down non-answers to stakeholders' questions about the pact.
For example, when Sierra Club president Allison Chin asked the U.S. trade negotiator how they have proceeded in making the environment chapter strong and enforceable, the answer was along the lines of, "That is a long and complex chapter that will build on the environment chapters of existing free trade agreements. We'll see what comes out of this round of negotiations."
Still, these feeble attempts at public inclusion really have no value when we "stakeholders" -- narrowly defined as those who register with U.S. Trade Representative -- haven't even seen the text that we're commenting on. Members of the media weren't allowed in the stakeholder's briefing and face similar challenges to access and information that limit their ability to report.
But, despite the logistical obstacles, I was proud that over 100 stakeholders from environmental, labor, family farm, consumer rights, and other fair trade allies came out on September 9 to demand that U.S. Trade Representative bring the trade pact's negotiations out of the shadows and protect people and the environment.
I was struck by their determination and dedication as they tried to unearth the answer to the question on everyone's mind: "What are the negotiators trying to hide?"
The next round of negotiations will take place outside of the U.S., but we must make sure that our representatives board the plane with the fundamental principles of our democracy in mind. They need to bring the negotiations into the light of day where they belong.