WASHINGTON -- A revealing conversation on the Senate floor Thursday showed precisely how secretive President Barack Obama's pending trade deals are, and the absurdity of arguments to the contrary.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sponsored a bill that would have required the administration to post a "scrubbed" copy of the trade deals well before Congress gives the president fast-track authority to jam them easily through Congress.
However, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) objected to bringing the bill forward. In response, Manchin and Warren made a few telling observations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the vast trade agreement the U.S. is currently negotiating with 11 other nations.
The pair 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.
"We are unable to take any notes or consider what we just saw unless we have a photographic memory and, unfortunately, I do not," Manchin said. "I've tried to remember and look at things I knew I was looking for, but still it's almost impossible to walk out of there having the ability to sit down and evaluate what you just saw."
"I taught the uniform commercial code and the bankruptcy code. I am not afraid of hollow, technical language. But you've got to be able to dig into it, you've got to be able to spend time and figure out the cross-references and the terms of art," Warren said. "It's difficult, thick stuff to read, and it's set up to minimize your capacity to track all the pieces about what's happening."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, found the process so frustrating that he quipped recently, "Sometimes I feel -- and I only say this half-jokingly -- like we have more access to the Iran negotiations."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a recent interview that even with his more extensive staff, the clearance process was nearly impossible.
"Right now if you’re a staff member of the [Finance] Committee you can look at it. But if you’re one of my people who works for my intelligence staff that has clearance to see what’s going on with nukes or weapons anyplace in the world, or what’s going on with the CIA, they can do that, but they can’t look at that real precious agreement that they’ve drawn up," he said.
Hatch admitted somewhat uncomfortably on Thursday that it's hard to know what's in the deal. "Look, I don't know fully what's in TPP myself," he said. "And I'm going to be one of the most interested people on Earth when that comes."
But, he argued that the bill moving through the Senate to give Obama his fast-track authority had plenty of transparency, since it requires any trade deal such as TPP to be made public 60 days before signing it with foreign partners, and another 60 days before Congress votes.
Hatch conveniently overlooked that fact that 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.
The solution of posting a partially redacted version of a deal for everyone to see -- before the president gets fast-track powers -- isn't a new idea, or even a Democratic one, Manchin said. He pointed out that President George W. Bush released the text of the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement.
"He did this months before he was granted fast-track authority," Manchin said. "He wasn't afraid to let us see. He wasn't afraid of the American public to know what was in that ... it didn't squelch the deal. It didn't harm anything."
Confronted with those details, Hatch seemed somewhat bemused, but didn't contradict them or back down and agree to a vote on the senators' bill.
"We supported the president's position, if I recall it correctly," Hatch said when asked if he remembered Bush's transparency.
Manchin and Warren had hoped to pass their bill as an amendment to the fast-track legislation, but it was clear after the Senate advanced the measure Thursday that they wouldn't get the chance. Instead, they tried to get consent from Hatch to vote on it separately.
Ultimately, Hatch suggested the fast-track bill might not be great, but they were stuck with it.
"I think we've made this as palatable as we possibly can, under the circumstances," Hatch said.
UPDATE: 8:41 p.m. -- A spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is negotiating TPP, released this statement:
The Administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase the transparency of our trade negotiations. That includes working with Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to make the full text of negotiations and easy to understand summaries of each chapter available to all members of Congress in the Capitol for the first time ever.
TPP negotiations are still ongoing. Once TPP is completed the public will have months to review the text online before it is even signed by the President and then more time before a vote is ever taken.
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