[P]opular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. … And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. – James Madison, 1822
In Washington, D.C. this year, spring has been churlish. A cold and rainy March has given way to a cool and unpredictable April. We hope for more sunlight.
Sunlight also is sorely needed in our nation’s capital as members of Congress consider an expedited process for approving trade agreements that are being done largely in secret. For the past several years, representatives of our government have been negotiating trade deals with the Pacific Rim nations and the European Union behind closed doors, pacts that will affect every American family and worker. The only people privy to inside information about the trade talks have been 566 trade advisors, the overwhelming majority of whom represent corporate interests.
Members of Congress can gain some access to this closely guarded information, but most staff members cannot, since these documents are considered classified information. In contrast, due to public pressure, the EU has begun to publicly release its draft texts, as well as background information about the negotiations.
You would think that in light of this lack of meaningful information on these complicated deals, Congress would demand that before it votes to on them, when their contents are finally disclosed, it get enough time to examine the details, to hold hearings, to ensure that the public gets to weigh in on these agreements in a way that could make a difference, not simply to react to deals that have already been cut.
Instead, a process that has lacked even basic transparency would be compounded by an approval mechanism that gives Congress a limited amount of time and no opportunity for committee oversight. Members who wish to amend these crucial agreements are out of luck; no amendments are permitted, and debate is limited to 20 hours. And the Senate, where bills of far less importance often are subject to a filibuster, won’t have the right to filibuster these trade deals. A simple majority is all that’s required to approve them.
This is not how a democracy is supposed to work, particularly when their impact is so far-reaching. Trade may seem like a wonky, inside-the-beltway subject, but this issue is important, particularly for the new trade deals of the 21st Century. Take the pending trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The focus of the deal is not on tariffs, but rather on the way both the U.S. and the EU will impose environmental and public health and safety standards in the future. Businesses that are sick of having to abide by different regulations in the EU and the U.S. call these differences “trade irritants,” and they’d like reduce them.
That could be a good thing, if the deal meant that we took the most protective rules and adopted them. But it is quite possible that the reverse will happen – that in the future both the U.S. and Europe will settle on “lowest common denominator” regulation that reduces safety and jeopardizes our environment, but that keeps corporate profits high.
There is even talk of including Investor State Dispute Settlement in this trade agreement, a mechanism that would make it possible for a foreign corporation to sue a government if it claimed a regulation unfairly harmed its bottom line. Such lawsuits would be decided by corporate and trade lawyers in an extra-national tribunal operating out of public view.
Labor, environmental and public health groups on both sides of the Atlantic have serious qualms about the consequences of these agreements. But the protests of the public interest community in this country have not yet resonated with the larger public. Nor have they gotten significant media attention.
You can understand why this is happening. Reporters increasingly are focusing on subjects that are trending among the public. But average citizens aren’t discussing trade deals because, to a large extent, they don’t know anything about them. So the public is not sending the media any signals that these deals interest them, and the media is responding by not reporting on them. We’ve created a vicious cycle.
These trade deals are way too important for either reporters or the media to simply shrug their shoulders and let government continue to act in secret. James Madison would be appalled by our apathy. If we believe that information is crucial to self-government, then it is our duty to demand more sunlight on trade.
Celia Wexler is Senior Washington Representative for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She is the author of Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis. The Center is a partner in theOpenTheGovernment.org coalition. This article previously appeared in The Hill.