Open Government Groups Want USTR To Be More Transparent, Publish Trade Proposals

Open Government Groups Want USTR To Be More Transparent, Publish Trade Proposals

By Jessa Boehner on Public Citizen 

Eight open government groups want the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to become much more transparent about ongoing international negotiations.

In May 23 recommendations for inclusion in USTR’s next “Open Government Plan,” the groups say “multiple aspects of USTR’s trade negotiation process fail to meet basic standards of transparency.” The last plan, published in 2014, pledged “increased inclusiveness in trade negotiations,” but since then the groups haven’t seen much progress in negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other deals.

USTR, they write, did not publish any TTP textual proposals “at any time, despite repeated urging and demands from civil society organizations, academics, and members of Congress. This despite the fact that the USTR provides access to its textual proposals to cleared advisers, nearly 9 out of 10 of which are representatives of large corporations and trade associations.”

They add that Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations did not go much better, despite European Commission attempts to increase transparency in negotiations. “The EU has been fulfilling its promise,” the recommendations document states, releasing fact sheets, position papers and “draft textual proposals. USTR has refused, however, to make its own textual proposals available, despite repeated demands by civil society groups and members of Congress. USTR has also failed to publish any of its textual proposals in the ongoing Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) negotiations, despite the fact that the European Union and some other negotiating partners have published some of their offers and proposals.”

Accordingly, they recommend:

USTR should immediately make available on its website the textual proposals related to rules that it has already tabled to its negotiating partners in the context of the TTIP, TiSA, and any other bilateral, regional, or multilateral trade negotiation it undertakes. While there may be a valid argument to keep confidential the details of tariff line negotiations on goods that may privilege some industries over others, tariff negotiations are just one part of the expansive coverage of the TPP, TTIP, and TiSA. Non-tariff related rules affect domestic policymaking in a host of policy areas, including but not limited to labor, the environment, healthcare, intellectual property, food safety, financial services regulation, public services, professional licensure, investment, and competition policy. The TTIP and other trade agreements are being made behind closed doors and without sufficient public participation or scrutiny even though they could set standards that will place restrictions on the ways Congress, state Open Government Plan Recommendations to USTR legislatures, and local governments can create, amend, and enforce laws to respond to constituents’ needs. Trust in government and its representatives is essential in a democracy, but secrecy breeds suspicion and uncertainty.

Yesterday the European Commission, citing an “ongoing transparency commitment,” released additional TTIP documents showing deep differences between the U.S. and the EU.

The open government groups, in their recommendations document, say they also want USTR to publish consolidated agreement drafts after each negotiation round and to appoint a “transparency officer who does not have structural conflicts of interest in promoting transparency at the agency.”

Last year, the groups note, Congress established a transparency officer position for USTR to “alter and improve what many in Congress consider an unacceptable lack of transparency by this administration with respect to trade policy in general and the TPP specifically.” But last September, USTR named its general counsel to the role – something the open government groups want changed.

“It is unclear how the same USTR staff person who is responsible for defending the agency’s existing choices regarding the secrecy of draft texts and denials of Freedom of Information Act requests can also serve as an effective advocate for new transparency improvements, which was Congress’ intent in the legislation establishing this position,” they write in the recommendation document. “Appointing USTR’s own general counsel to the Fast Track-mandated transparency officer position raises concerns about the USTR’s commitment to the principle of transparency that the legislation intended to address.”

A letter on the transparency officer slot sent last year by two dozen open-government groups to USTR Michael Froman has gone unanswered, the document states.

Signatories to the new recommendations include the Association of Research Libraries, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Demand Progress, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Government Accountability Project, OpenTheGovernment.org, the Project On Government Oversight and the Sunlight Foundation.