Lawmakers pass up chance to read ‘secret’ trade text

About 40 House members and three senators have asked to view the text of a massive Asia-Pacific trade deal in the three years since it was made available by the White House, according to records obtained by The Hill.

The document is at the center of an intense battle between President Obama and liberals in Congress, who have assailed the White House for what they say is a cloak of “secrecy” surrounding the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. 

{mosads}A congressional uproar led the Obama administration to relax the rules for viewing the TPP text, which is now kept in the basement of the Capitol and is available to any lawmaker — and their staffers with the proper security clearance — who wants to see it.

Liberals have long argued that the White House doesn’t want them to see the TPP details because they would confirm their beliefs that the deal will harm U.S. workers.

Some critics, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), are going so far as to call on the Obama administration to release the TPP text to the public.

But despite those calls, few lawmakers have taken the opportunity to examine the trade pact even with votes looming in the House and Senate on trade-promotion authority (TPA) legislation. 

Lawmakers have a range of theories about why their colleagues haven’t been rushing to view the text, even after the change in rules that lets them see the TPP at their convenience. 

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, told The Hill that he is not surprised by the numbers because the deal is “still a work in progress.” 

“It’s not just about reading the text, it’s about having a dialogue with the U.S. trade representative’s [USTR] staff,” he said.

Tiberi said he expects more lawmakers will look at the text with the trade debate getting more attention.

Rep. Ron Kind (Wis.), one of two Democrats to support trade promotion authority during a committee vote on Thursday, told The Hill he thinks the number of lawmakers who have reviewed the deal is now probably more than 40. 

Kind said that he has helped organize dozens of walk-throughs for Democrats to delve into parts of the accord.

“It’s really up to the individual member to determine what level of engagement they want because the text is out there, we have access to it and [Michael] Froman and his team are more than willing to come up and sit down and make sure we have access to it and answer our questions and, at the same time, get our feedback on what we’d like to see,” Kind said. 

“USTR is encouraging all members to do that,” he said. 

But there is still plenty of agitation over the viewing rules.  

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Ways and Means panel who voted against the TPA bill on Thursday, said it’s “absolutely ridiculous that you have to go into a secret room” to view the text of the deal.

“This is not the Iranian negotiation,” he said Friday by phone. “What the hell is secret about winners and losers?”

Rangel said so few lawmakers have viewed the document “because the administration already said what’s not in it.”

Those exclusions include tougher language battling currency manipulation, provisions for workforce training and an infrastructure component to create U.S. jobs — all elements he’s pushing for as part of a larger trade package.

“All you have to do is show me the jobs and I don’t even have to go in there to see the rest of it,” Rangel said. 

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, also acknowledged the availability of the document, but lamented the strict rules surrounding its accessibility.  

“We don’t know what’s in it, it’s a mysterious document. You can’t use your phone and take pictures,” Butterfield said. “I understand from a labor leader that Froman brought it over to the labor leader’s office and put it on the table and said, ‘Look, stop telling people that you don’t have the bill. There’s the bill, and you can look at it —  but you can’t make any notes.’

“I don’t know what the mystery’s all about,” Butterfield said. “Show your hand.”  

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who has read most of the TPP text, has said that the changes made last month were a step in the right direction but questioned whether a bipartisan TPA bill does the trick in boosting transparency.

“This really is a fast track — seeking to railroad the Trans-Pacific Partnership through while USTR hides from Congress the most important details,” Doggett said at a trade hearing last week. 

“By removing the congressional steering wheel and brake, this fast-track bill derails a full debate and restricts meaningful access to secret trade deals,” he said. 

The debate has redrawn the political battle lines in Washington, with GOP leaders joining forces with the president in the face of strong opposition from liberal Democrats who have routinely been Obama’s strongest defenders.

A number of the Democratic critics have cited the failed promises of past trade deals — particularly the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — as a large reason for their reluctance to support the TPP. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a major critic of trade policy who viewed the text after the rules changes last month, said the White House has drawn a line in the sand. 

“It’s not to exchange ideas or to rethink how we do things. It’s to tell me how I’m wrong,” he said. “The administration has taken this approach of, ‘You’re either with us or against us on trade.’ “

Over the weekend Obama acknowledged the Democratic rift but held nothing back in his criticism.

“It’s the highest-standard trade agreement in history,” Obama said Saturday during his weekly radio address.  

“It’s got strong provisions for workers and the environment — provisions that, unlike in past agreements, are actually enforceable,” he said. 

“So this isn’t a race to the bottom, for lower wages and working conditions. The trade agreements I’m negotiating will drive a race to the top.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has sought to downplay the division with Obama, saying the president “believes in all that we want” and insisting she’s not lobbying against the TPA bill he supports.

Still, the pressure is building on Democrats to insist on public release of the TPP, something the White House has argued adamantly against.

“So, now, it’s the case that the president says that he wants the American people to judge this deal based on the facts, but to do that, he’s got to make the deal public,” Warren said recently on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.” 

“Otherwise, the American people can’t judge it on the facts. You won’t put the facts out there.”

Tags Elizabeth Warren G.K. Butterfield Ron Kind Sherrod Brown

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