If you need further proof of your democracy’s ill health, the Senate provided plenty of it this week as it began debating whether to fast track President Obama’s much-beloved Trans Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP). By passing the bill Congress, would divest itself of its constitutional right to amend the agreement. On Thursday, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” signaled it will do just that. Debate will extend into the coming week — but make no mistake, in the Senate, the fix is in.
Acceptance or rejection of the agreement will be the most consequential decision Congress has made since greenlighting the Iraq war. Yet no member of the public has been allowed to read the document. Neither has any member of Congress, really. A copy lies in a locked room in the Capitol basement. There, relieved by security guards of any cell phones, cameras or recorders, members may read it but are not allowed to take any notes.
We gripe about legislators not reading bills, but doing so can be a colossal waste of time. Bills are often literally unreadable. To tell a member of Congress to sit under guard in an airless room perusing an impenetrable text insults not just that member but democracy itself. We shouldn’t castigate those who decline the invitation, just those who’d stop others from making changes to a treaty they haven’t read.
Few in or out of politics grasp the TPP’s epic scope. This is partly due to the secrecy in which it is shrouded but also to how both sides have framed the debate. At stake are rules governing a quarter of all world trade. These rules may well supplant those in other trade agreements and so affect nearly all global trade. But that’s not the all of it, not by a long shot. The first thing you need to know about the trade agreement is that it’s about so much more than trade.