Classified briefings and bill-readings in basement rooms are making members queasy.
If you want to hear the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the Obama administration is hoping to pass, you’ve got to be a member of Congress, and you’ve got to go to classified briefings and leave your staff and cellphone at the door. If you’re a member who wants to read the text, you’ve got to go to a room in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center and be handed it one section at a time, watched over as you read, and forced to hand over any notes you make before leaving.
And no matter what, you can’t discuss the details of what you’ve read.
“We’ve worked closely with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to balance unprecedented access to classified documents with the appropriate level of discretion that’s needed to ensure Americans get the best deal possible in an ongoing, high-stakes international negotiation,” said USTR spokesman Matt McAlvanah.
Moreover, many of the leaders of the opposition, administration aides argue, are people who aren’t used to dealing with classified information and don’t realize how standard this secrecy is.
“The access to information is totally at the whim of Ambassador Froman,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who’s a hard no on fast track but says he’d like to see other ways of promoting international trade. “He likes to make available information that he thinks helps his case, and if it conflicts, then he doesn’t make the information available,” Doggett said.
Doggett, like other critics, pointed out that the cover sheets of the trade documents in that basement room are marked only “confidential document” and note they’re able to be transmitted over unsecured email and fax — but for some reason are still restricted to members of Congress.
“My chief of staff who has a top secret security clearance can learn more about ISIS or Yemen than about this trade agreement,” Doggett said.
“We know when we’re being suckered,” said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who said he believes that the USTR quotes percentages instead of absolute values on trade statistics that give an overly positive impression. “It’s not only condescending, it’s misleading.”
“The more people hear Ambassador Froman but feel they get less than candid and accurate answers, I think it loses votes for them,” Doggett said.
In February, it was Pelosi who urged the administration to begin the briefings, warning that Democratic support was nowhere near what the White House would need for fast-track to pass the House. Obama has started to get more personally engaged trying to shore up support for the deal. The president hosted a White House meeting Thursday with members of the New Democrat Coalition, who are generally inclined to support him on trade but still pressed him to make more information available.
“He emphasized that under the trade promotion bills, this is going to be the most transparent bill ever,” said Kind, who attended.
“He’s indignant when we say it’s secret,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). “Maybe there’s some definition of secrecy he knows that I don’t know.”