Secret Government: Trade Deals and Transparency

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It has been a sight to behold. President Obama and top Republicans standing arm in arm while liberal Democrats throw tomatoes from the cheap seats. At issue is the president’s trade agenda, and even the most astute political observers seem at a loss to explain what it consists of and what it might mean to the American labor force. Liberals despise it, yes, but many conservative sites have come out against it with nearly as much fervor. Drudge and Breitbart, in particular, have hammered the anti-TPP gong with every bit as much energy as Elizabeth Warren. What’s going on here?

If you ask Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, it’s much ado about nothing. “Look, first of all, don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” Ryan said Thursday on Fox and Friends. “Second of all, this is why we need to pass Trade Promotion Authority. What we have in Trade Promotion Authority is a prevention of any immigration changes, of any climate change legislation going into a trade agreement. So by passing Trade Promotion Authority, we’re putting Congress in the driver’s seat which is transparency.”

Critics don’t believe that’s quite the case. While Ryan insists that the vote currently on the floor is merely one of process, critics on both sides of the aisle say that it is a vote to give Obama more power, not less. What is certain is that there is more substance here than mere procedure. Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas is one of many lawmakers who have confirmed the existence of a secret room on Capitol Hill where a select few have been given permission to peruse some 800 pages of the TPP. The question then becomes…why all the secrecy?

“The reason we can’t see it yet is because it hasn’t been negotiated yet,” insists Ryan. “It doesn’t exist yet.”

Americans aren’t buying it. Polls show that the majority of Americans from either side of the political spectrum oppose the deal. Some of these polls even show greater support among Democrats than Republicans, which is a strange thing considering the traditional conservative line on free trade. Even considering the wealth of white, blue-collar conservatives who want to avoid competing with cheap foreign labor, the opposition seems extreme.

But it isn’t hard to figure out why. Part of the reason why Republicans dominated the midterms was because voters wanted a set of lawmakers who would actually stand up to the president. What they got instead were empty promises and Republicans all-too-willing to cave when the kitchen got hot. To these voters, Republicans supporting the TPP are breaking their word.

Because the process is shrouded in secrecy, there’s no way to tell who’s right. Politicians are seemingly willing to vote for a piece of legislation without knowing what’s inside. And regardless of whether the TPP is the best thing that ever happened to America or the worst, we deserve better than an opaque, secretive process.

Can there be political scenarios where everyone is wrong? If so, this might be one of them.