Dingell seeks transparency in trade deal negotiations

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell wants to make secretive trade negotiations less secret.

Legislation introduced this week by the Dearborn Democrat aims to bring sunshine to the process of negotiating trade deals, in part by requiring the publication of the text online after each round of negotiations, so that interested parties and stakeholders may review it.

“This legislation would ensure that future trade negotiations are open to public debate, so the American people can see for themselves whether these agreements are good for them and their families, and so Congress can carry out our constitutional responsibility to ensure trade deals promote economic growth and keep jobs in this country,” she said.

The bill would require that the U.S. trade representative appoint a transparency officer who is free of conflicts of interest, Dingell said.

Currently, the position of chief transparency officer is held by the trade representative’s general counsel, Timothy Reif.

That is “hardly an unbiased person” to work for transparency, Dingell said. “You don’t put the person in charge of it whose boss is doing the negotiating,” she added.

Trade negotiations have traditionally occurred in secret. U.S. negotiators have said it’s necessary to build trust among the parties negotiating, and that other countries might not put their best proposals on the table if disclosed.

Susan Aaronson, a trade expert and research professor of international affairs at George Washington University, agrees that someone aside from Reif should be the transparency officer. But the publication of the trade-deal text after every round of negotiations would be extreme, Aaronson said.

Some aspects of the deal need to remain private, such as businesses’ confidential information, she said.

“We would also would need other nations to agree to opening up the process, and they’re not going to do that,” Aaronson said.

Aaronson wants trade negotiations made more transparent and accountable, noting that secrecy creates mistrust among citizens. But she disagrees with Dingell that Congress has no input into the negotiations.

“I disagree that the process is undemocratic and the public is not involved. It’s just the concerned public that is involved,” she said. “And I think the U.S. trade representative can do a lot to involve more people, and they don’t.”

Aaronson has suggested broadening the scope of advisory committees and experimenting with crowd-sourcing.

Co-sponsors on Dingell’s bill include Democratic Reps. Rick Nolan of Minnesota; Mark Pocan of Wisconsin; Tim Ryan of Ohio; and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Dingell said she would be reaching out to Michigan Republicans for their support, as well.

Her bill, Promoting Transparency in Trade Act, is a response to the pending 12-nation free trade deal with Asia known as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

After more than eight years of talks, the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada and eight other nations announced a final deal last fall that would create a free trade zone. Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam were also part of the agreement.

Among other provisions, the deal requires participating countries to remove tariffs on imported goods, including automobiles, from other signatories of the deal, treating those as they would if they were manufactured internally.

Automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler oppose the deal, in part because it doesn’t go far enough in addressing currency manipulation by other nations. Michigan lawmakers have suggested the state has lost tens of thousands of jobs in part because of currency manipulation by China, Japan and other countries.

The office of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman declined to comment on Dingell’s bill.

Froman’s office has highlighted its transparency efforts regarding TPP, including the publication of detailed summaries of U.S. objectives in negotiating the agreement; the solicitation of public input on negotiating priorities; and the holding of public hearings to gather input on the negotiations.

The trade representative also held more than 1,800 congressional briefings on TPP.

(202) 662-8736

Detroit News Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed.