The Common Good

The Insider List

It's a honking long list of insiders — 605 names long, give or take a few duplicates. What do all of them, mostly from corporate America, know about the secret playbook U.S. trade officials are using next week in San Diego to negotiate a potentially huge international agreement?

Five U.S. senators and 132 members of the House of Representatives wish they knew. They've been asking U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the official in charge of such negotiations, to pretty-please let all members of Congress see the working text, or at least chapter summaries, of the deceptively benign-sounding Trans-Pacific Partnership, now in the works. 

So far, Kirk has said no. (In his defense, last month House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., leaked a draft [from 2011] of the "intellectual property" chapter of TPP, just because it's a "secretive agreement" that could “undermine individual privacy rights and stifle innovation." Leaking, whistleblowing--potato, potahto).

If the U.S. Trade Representative is blowing off U.S. citizens' elected representatives, who is he representing? That’s where the 600 trade advisors with access to the text, mentioned in many news stories, come in. They’re on the 16 different “industry trade advisory committees” [ITACs], plus seven non-industrial committees, which the USTR says it keeps “up to date as the negotiations proceed." (Of course, you can't believe everything you read — the USTR also says it's given any member of Congress "access to classified negotiating documents and texts.")

The names are listed on 23 different websites, so, when taking a recent intercity bus ride, I downloaded them all into one spreadsheet. Is it really "more than 600" lobbyists? Close. It’s probably a bit fewer than 600, since some people are on two different committees. Most are from corporations such as Wal-Mart and Cargill or from industry groups, but there are a few nonprofits represented, including — irony alert! — Transparency International.

Oh, and the Obama administration told registered lobbyists in 2009 that they couldn’t serve on the committees, so maybe these aren't technically lobbyists—just corporate employees telling the government what they want it to do. See the difference?

I’m not blaming the people on this list for doing what they're hired to do, participating in a system Congress set up in 1974. (OK, maybe I'm blaming Tobacco Associates Inc., who are presumably trying to use trade pacts to weaken countries' public health laws). And I'm not blaming those on the list for not leaking; they're all sworn to secrecy. (But I'm not, so if anyone would like to share any non-public information, please give me a call at the Sojourners offices!)

I'm just saying that, if the USTR can send the negotiating text to around 600 insiders, then sending it to all 535 members of Congress—or, heck, a few media —shouldn't be too hard.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners magazine and tweets @ZabPalmberg.

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