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Check Your Democracy at the Door

May 30, 2015

“The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one.”

– Margaret Atwood, from The Blind Assassin

The U.S. Senate passed two separate bills this month to give Barack Obama clearance to negotiate  a trade arrangement on its behalf with twelve countries. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is gathering steam and President Obama seems intent on making this a centerpiece of his legacy.

The endeavor is a rare display of cooperation between the Senate and Obama. TPP has strong support from most Republicans. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once said that his priority was to make Obama a one-term president, is steadfast with the president on this deal.

Under the US Constitution, only Congress has the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.” The president has the authority to enter treaties with the Senate’s consent and advice. With its passage of the two bills this month, the Senate told Obama to go finish your negotiations and then bring it back to us for an “up or down” vote. In other words, they gave up their right to amend his deal.

TPP negotiations started six years ago. America’s effort is led by a former Citigroup employee, who received a $4 million bonus from his firm when he joined Team Obama. This compensation is typical for powerful financial firms because they like their alumni in the the thick of things with the government’s policy makers. He is joined by a group more than five hundred advisers, most of whom represent corporations and trade groups. Here we have the usual: Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture, Wal-Mart, and of course, Wall Street. Labor unions, small businesses and other side shows are represented. These people have full access to the draft agreement and can comment, advise and help create the terms that Congress will ultimately be asked to vote on.

Congress is not involved. Members are allowed to go to a secret room to read the draft agreement. They cannot take photocopies, leave the room with notes or bring staff or other experts into the room with them. Further, they cannot comment about the specific terms. Since Obama has classified this information, they cannot talk about what they have read publicly. Doing so would leave them open for prosecution and legal troubles with Obama’s Justice Department. This doesn’t seem to faze Obama when he belittles critics like Senator Elizabeth Warren and then challenges them to a debate on the facts. Warren and others can’t go public with their findings, so how is that supposed to happen? Representative Alan Grayson has read TPP and says that there is no national security purpose to keeping it classified.

It’s more than a little disturbing that these deals are being crafted in secrecy from our elected officials and the voters, but foreign governments and hand-picked corporate interests are given full access and influence. Warren says that supporters of the deal have told her, “We can’t make this deal public because if the American people saw what was in it, they would be opposed to it.” How does that affect your confidence in this venture?

Some of the strongest objection in the country comes from those concerned about handing over U.S. sovereignty to multi-national corporations. The “investment chapter,” which has been obtained and published by WikiLeaks and others shows how these companies could sue the United States for limiting their ability to make a profit or otherwise upset their business plans. For example, if voters in your county or state decided that they did not want a new power plant next to the schoolyard or objected to the chemicals leaking into the community’s water source, the government could be called into an international court to defend these measures. Thinking about raising the minimum wage in your town? Think again, because a foreign firm doing business there could cry foul.

It seems to me that this way of thinking reduces rights of “We the people” and hands them to those imaginary people called corporations. A United Nations official claims that the arrangement Obama is negotiating on our behalf sets the risk for “a dystopian future in which corporations and not democratically elected governments call the shots” and “an international order akin to post-democracy or post-law.”

By the way, this particular document was supposed to be classified for four years after TPP’s effective date. That would be a long time for U.S. voters or their elected officials to have to wait to talk about publicly. Democracy?

Some of the strongest support comes the same crowd that brought you the financial collapse of 2008. You remember, don’t you? this is when you or someone you knew lost their job and the 401(k), equity value in the house and other investmentshqdefault slipped away right in front of your eyes. The sultans of New York want this agreement passed. Senator Warren tells us to rebuff their appeals and warns that hard-fought financial reforms, which were resisted by Wall Street, could be undermined by TPP.

I think the whole process stinks.

Whether you are for or against TPP at this point, you’re in the same boat as most others. Unless you are an insider, you really don’t know the details except for the part that’s been leaked. It’s a secret, no matter what the president says.

And Congress, by the way, will have a lot of time to review it when and if it’s actually completed.  So this whole notion that it’s all secret, they’re going to have 60 days before I even sign it to look at the text, and then a number of months after that before they have to take a final vote.

– Barack Obama, April 28, 2015

Do you remember this guy?

“I will replace Fast Track with a process that includes criteria determining appropriate negotiating partners that includes an analysis of labor and environmental standards as well as the state of civil society in those countries. Finally, I will ensure that Congress plays a strong and informed role in our international economic policy and in any future agreements we pursue and in our efforts to amend existing agreements.”

“I will not support extension of the existing Fast Track process that expired. I have not and would not support renewing Trade Promotion Authority for this President. The current Fast Track process does not mandate that agreements include binding labor and environmental protections nor does it give an adequate role to Congress in the selection and design of agreements. I will work with Congressional leaders to ensure that any new TPA authority fix these basic failings and open up the process to the American people for their participation and scrutiny.”

“I oppose extending or renewing the current Fast Track authority as designed, but would support a redesigned process that provided for greater transparency, more democratic participation, and required labor and environmental provisions in the core of agreements.

– Barack Obama as a candidate in 2008

  1. The quote from Warren is particularly disturbing. I know many of our political personalities think that way, but still…


  2. Thanks for laying bare what many of us probably weren’t fully aware of. Anything done in a shroud of secrecy is suspicious and warrants further discussion.


  3. You know, I’m a huge supporter of Obama’s and believe the vast majority of charges against him are complete hokum, but this one as you have described it rings far too true. Similar to the fact that none of the bankers who caused the economic wreckage have served any time, the manner in which this is being done demonstrates the wholesale ownership of our government by corporate interests. I never thought I’d say that. It’s very disheartening that Obama has endorsed this secret process. There is absolutely no reason a trade agreement should be handled this way. It’s a shame, too, because I’m generally in favor of trade agreements. But I gotta know the details for that.


  4. Disturbing….(◡﹏◡)


  5. I’ve followed the TPP process with concern and frustration. You’ve laid out the issues well. Agree or disagree — with TPP, with the ACA, with foreign policy decisions — all such major decisions need public discussion. The levels of cynicism and disengagement from the political process in our country are not only disheartening, I’m convinced they’re due in part to people sensing that the process is out of their control.


  6. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    Great essay, please read.


  7. This sounds terrible. I would be very interested to learn how such an arrangement came into being, even though I am not an American. As a friend of America, I am alarmed by this story.


  8. Poor democracy has been hanging in the back of the closet waiting for the american people to start participating in her greatness, but if it requires more than a “like” on Facebook that is not going to happen. This is no different than the Patriot Act slipping through our hands in the middle of the night. I didn’t like that and I certainly don’t like this at all. Obama should realize by now that this Congress does not have his best interest at heart, so if they are on board it’s time to jump ship.


  9. To use comments from your other readers: disheartening, disturbing, frustrating, and I’ll add, DISMAYING.


  10. Sick of the this administration and all the secrecy, and Congress definitely isn’t much better.


  11. You manage to outline so clearly what most of us are not aware of.
    and the secrecy is frankly frightening


  12. One of your best pieces ever! Good work!


  13. I still say, Bruce for President! I hope this blog post means your schedule has eased- up a bit 🙂


  14. you’ve exposed an appalling situation. Seems there are too many to follow. Another i don’t follow closely enough is the way Agribusiness controls what we eat and how we pay for it.


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