Friday, March 9, 2012

Transparency and Mr. Kirk

Toward the end of the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on the Administration’s trade agenda this week, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden – who chairs the international trade subcommittee – got into a somewhat testy exchange over the level of transparency in the ongoing TransPacific Partnership negotiations.

Sen. Wyden’s primary concern centered on the issue of Internet freedom. The Administration needs to understand how important this issue is to Americans – something that should be clear after public criticism basically took down two Administration-backed intellectual property protection bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. The ongoing public ruckus in Europe over ratification of the Anticounterfeiting Trade Agreement shows this is a global concern, the senator said.

The senator urged the Administration to make any TPP negotiating texts dealing with Internet freedom available to the public.

Mr. Kirk countered that the TPP is seeking to promote the free flow of information and should not be confused with the hated SOPA, PIPA or ACTA. He also made the argument against publicly releasing TPP text. Releasing documents in the middle of a negotiation, when text is continually evolving, would hinder talks and give countries pause about negotiating with the United States, he responded.

The USTR concluded his committee appearance by defending the Administration’s record on transparency – saying that no White House has been more open.

That may be true, but apparently it doesn’t extend to dealing with the press.

As soon as the hearing was over, Mr. Kirk headed to the podium to chat for a few minutes with Mr. Wyden – the last senator standing – and then headed into the backroom committee office. The trade press – all the usual suspects, well know to Mr. Kirk, supplemented by a fairly substantial contingent of Japanese press who have been pursuing the USTR since Tokyo started talking about joining the TPP – took their usual position out in the hallway in front of the door that senators and staff normally exit.

Mr. Kirk opened the door, took one look at the waiting crowd and slammed it shut. A few minutes later he popped out of another door down the hall, obviously intending to avoid facing reporters. That, of course, prompted a stampede of journalists and Japanese camera crews running down the hall of the Dirksen Senate Office Building second floor.

The end result? Mr. Kirk still ended up surrounded by a crowd of reporters, since he had to wait for an elevator.

Is sneaking out a back door in hopes of avoiding reporters an example of a transparent and open Administration?

Of course, Mr. Kirk is under no obligation to talk to reporters and I have sympathy with someone not wanting to answer any more questions after spending two hours being grilled by US senators. But why not just say so? Why try to hide or avoid? Why not just walk out the door and say "sorry, I’m not taking any questions today." Of course, reporters will still try to ask questions, but that’s what we’re supposed to do. No one is obligated to answer.

But trying to sneak away from the press after touting the Administration’s openness?

Mary Berger

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