The contents of the corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's trade agenda, will remain shrouded in secrecy after Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on Thursday blocked legislation that would have increased transparency around the mammoth trade agreement involving 12 Pacific Rim countries.
Sens. Joe Manchin (a bill that would require the president to make the text of trade agreements available to the public before those agreements receive "expedited consideration"—or Fast Track authority—from Congress..) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sponsored
The Fast Track bill currently working its way through Congress does require that any trade deal, such as TPP, be made public for 60 days before Congress votes on it.
However, even if lawmakers find specific problems in a deal, there would be little they could do to stop it because Fast Track allows no amendments and no filibusters—they may only vote yes or no.
As such, Fast Track opponents have pointed out, the transparency is rather meaningless.
"The Trade Transparency Act would ensure that the public, experts, and the press can engage in meaningful debate over the terms of trade deals before Congress reduces its ability to shape, amend, or block those deals," Warren said upon introducing the legislation on Tuesday. "Before Congress ties its hands on trade deals, the American people should be allowed to see for themselves whether these agreements are good for them."
The senators had hoped to pass their bill as an amendment to the Fast Track legislation, but it was clear after the Senate voted Thursday to end debate and advance the bill that they wouldn't get the chance. Instead, they tried to get consent from Hatch to vote on it separately. Hatch objected to moving the measure forward.
In response, the Huffington Post reports, Warren and Manchin "noted that although legislators are allowed to look at the text of the TPP in a secure room, they are only allowed to do so under restrictions that make it nearly impossible to understand what they are reading."
First, they can't bring expert staffers with them unless they have the right clearances, and the aides who have expertise in various relevant areas—for instance on the impacts on the environment or labor law—generally are not cleared.
Second, lawmakers can't record anything, or take any notes from the room.
"They'll give you a piece of paper if you want to take notes, but then you have to give them back the piece of paper," Warren said.
The legislators can't talk to anyone about what they've read, either.
Earlier this week, Ezra Klein wrote for Vox: "The impression of secrecy around the TPP has been a disaster for the administration. Nothing sounds worse than a secret trade deal. After all, if the deal were really so good, then surely the administration wouldn't be keeping it secret!"
And Thursday's Senate vote to end debate and move Fast Track forward without any amendments "erected another barrier to the popular input and pressure—and the responses of elected representatives to this input and pressure—that makes real the promise of democracy," John Nichols wrote at The Nation.
"If members of the House and Senate cannot check and balance executive branch choices that will define the economic future of the country, then the ability of the American people to petition for the redress of economic and social grievances and to have those grievances addressed by their elected representatives is severely undermined," he argued. "That is what is at stake with debates about whether to eliminate basic congressional oversight of trade deals."