Trade negotiations need more public input

This week, the President has sent U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman out to convince the public that trade deals are good for everyone, not only special interests. In my role as U.S. chair of the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue, I respond to his latest proposal for a "Public Interest Advisory Committee."

This week, the President has sent U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman out to convince the public that trade deals are good for everyone, not only for special interests. Why? Congressional leaders, including Senator Harry Reid (NV) and Representative Nancy Pelosi (CA), are blocking the President’s request for “fast-track” trade authority. Perhaps more importantly, public interest opposition to the close-to-final proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is heating up as new questions about its impact on U.S. health and safety regulations for consumers and workers are raised. Meanwhile, the administration has just begun negotiations with the European Union on a proposed TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that it considers just as important.

You can watch and read Ambassador Froman’s speech yesterday at the Center for American Progress. In that speech, among other things, he proposed to give public interest groups more input into the trade negotiations process by establishing a new Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee.

In my role as U.S. chair of the TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue, I am quoted in a TACD news release responding to the USTR proposal for that “Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee.” We commend the USTR for taking a step toward transparency, but it really doesn’t go far enough. Excerpt from the release:

“TACD has been asking for more consumer input to these trade talks for some time, and we appreciate that USTR has recognized this need. At present the USTR has more than 600 industry advisors, all of whom have access to classified negotiating texts, but only one advisor affiliated with a consumer group. Today’s announcement at least is an implicit acknowledgement of this imbalance,” said Ed Mierzwinski of US Public Interest Research Group and TACD’s US Chair.

“TACD remains concerned however that negotiations on trade agreements, which can affect everything from the safety of imported fish to health warnings on cigarette packages, from auto safety rules to the soundness of our banking system, are still being conducted in secret, with only a small group of USTR advisors having access to negotiating texts. We believe that draft trade agreements, like bills in Congress, should be fully available to the general public,” Mierzwinski stated.  

U.S. agribusiness groups also hope that the TTIP treaty will eliminate the GMO labeling laws that every single European nation has in place already and that U.S. PIRG seeks to win for American consumers. The TPP and proposed TTIP also include very controversial language that elevates corporations, but not consumer groups, to the equivalent of sovereign nations. Through so-called Investor-State Dispute System (ISDS) language, they could challenge domestic health and safety laws outside of a country’s court system. Conversely, public interest groups seeking to challenge inadequate protections could not use the ISDS system.

These and other potential problems with the TTIP and TPP make it imperative that Ambassador Froman go further than merely creating one more advisory committee whose members face a gag order about communicating with the public (a gag order enforced by criminal penalties in our espionage laws). As we point out in the release, the public, not just special advisory committees, needs the right to see negotiating text, just as we see proposed bills and amendments in Congress.


Ed Mierzwinski

Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, PIRG

Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.