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The TPP Trade Pact: An Affront to Democracy

TPP1Few are aware that Virginia, the birthplace of American democracy, is playing host to international trade negotiations that challenge democracy as we know it.

From September 6 through 15, representatives from the United States and eight Pacific Rim countries are meeting in a private and secluded resort in Leesburg to advance a trade agreement that could impact nearly every aspect of our lives. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact could subject environmental and public interest laws and safeguards to attack by foreign corporations, threaten our air and water with toxic pollution, and lead to more American jobs being shipped overseas. Possibly most troubling, however, is that the TPP is shaping up to be a stealth affront to the principles of our democracy.

As president of the Sierra Club, elected by the membership of the nation's largest grassroots environmental organization, I value the fundamental elements of democracy -- including openness, transparency, and participation -- that help ensure fairness and equity in how rules are made and whom they protect.  

So I was bothered to learn that, while the negotiations for the TPP are taking place just a short distance from my home in Leesburg, I can't actually participate in -- or even observe -- any of the talks. In fact, none but TPP government trade negotiators, hundreds of elite business executives, and a handful of noncorporate advisors can even read any of the draft texts. It's all hidden from the public, and negotiations are conducted behind closed doors.

Members of the public who register with the U.S. Trade Representative are allowed limited face time with the negotiators: They can display information at a table for a couple of hours, make a short presentation, and attend a briefing by trade negotiators. I appreciate these opportunities, and I'll take advantage of them. However, presence is not the same as transparency and participation. And when nearly every American is shut out from seeing the language of the pact, it's impossible to call this an open process.

While even members of Congress can't see the specific contents of the pact, hundreds of business executives -- from Halliburton to the National Coal Council -- are all actively involved in shaping the TPP. And, just like the trade negotiators, these corporate executives are sworn to secrecy by law, creating a deeper rift between this inner circle and the public.

Since corporations are shaping the trade pact, it's no surprise they're the ones being protected by its rules. A leaked version of this pact's chapter on investment reveals that it would allow foreign corporations to sue governments for unlimited cash compensation over nearly any law that the corporation argues could hurt its expected future profits. That means in backroom, closed-door tribunals without public comment or participation, corporations would be able to bypass domestic court systems and challenge policies put in place democratically by elected officials. What will that mean? Imagine, for example, a foreign oil corporation suing the American government in a foreign tribunal for hundreds of millions of dollars over new American regulations that protect our land and water from drilling. The oil, gas, and mining industries are likely to champ at the bit over the potential of this pact.

The gas industry, in particular, could profit and pollute even more under the TPP. That's because the pact would likely mean automatic approval of liquefied natural gas export permits to participating countries without any economic or environmental review or federal approval from the Department of Energy. Increased exports would mean a significant increase of domestic hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the dirty and violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations and is known to contaminate drinking water and pollute the air we breathe. Additionally, liquefied natural gas has a carbon footprint as large as coal, further contributing to climate disruption while increasing our dependence on more fossil fuel energy in the place of clean, renewable energy all across the world.

It's time to have a real conversation about how to engage in responsible trade. Government officials tout the TPP as a "21st-century agreement -- but there's nothing innovative about keeping the public in the dark. We must restore the basic principles of democracy in order to protect the public and the environment -- even if it's inconvenient for some large corporations.
Join me and a coalition of activists at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9, outside the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg to rally for fair trade and tell trade negotiators: It's time to release the text.


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David Scott

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