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Democrat Vows To Block Key Nomination Over Asia Trade Deal Secrecy

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is holding up an Obama trade nomination after U.S. trade authorities missed a deadline to ease secrecy protocols around TPP draft language.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is holding up an Obama trade nomination after U.S. trade authorities missed a deadline to ease secrecy protocols around TPP draft language.

Sen. Sherrod Brown announced Friday he is going to block the confirmation of a high-level White House nominee, because of the Obama administration's refusal to relax its secrecy protocols that make it difficult for members of Congress and their staffs to review the language in a Pacific Rim trade deal.

Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, told NPR it was "outrageous" that congressional staff members with the proper security clearances can view the Trans-Pacific Partnership draft only when a member of Congress accompanies them. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reported in May, the document is stored in a highly secure room in the basement of the Capitol.

A notice was sent from Brown last week to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative demanding credentialed policy advisers full access (minus the chaperone) to the TPP draft language. Brown set the deadline for noon EST Friday.

And when that deadline came and went, Brown announced he was placing a hold on the president's deputy U.S. trade nominee, Marisa Lago.

In a statement Brown said:

"The Administration would rather sacrifice a nominee for a key post than improve transparency of the largest trade agreement ever negotiated. This deal could affect more than 40 percent of our global economy, but even seasoned policy advisors with the requisite security clearance can't review text without being accompanied by a Member of Congress. It shouldn't be easier for multinational corporations to get their hands on trade text than for public servants looking out for American workers and American manufacturers."

It takes just a single senator to place a hold on a nominee. Lago easily sailed through her Finance Committee confirmation earlier this month, but she must still be approved by the full Senate. Brown is threatening to keep the hold on her nomination for the rest of President Obama's time in office.

"I'm going to have a hold for the next 18 months, because the USTR simply wasn't willing to open up the reading of this text to Senate staff that has security clearance," Brown told NPR.

A USTR spokesperson did not address the senator's threat to hold up Lago's nomination directly, but in a statement said the steps the Obama administration has taken to be transparent in regards to the TPP language are "unprecedented":

"Every Member of Congress has access to the draft TPP negotiating text, as do professional staff members on Committees with jurisdiction. Our focus is on completing the TPP, which will be posted online in its entirety for the American people to review for months before the President even signs it and for longer before it comes to a vote. In the meantime, we will continue to consult with Congress, consistent with bipartisan TPA, to ensure that we maximize transparency while negotiating the best possible deal for American interests."

Brown said he's been asking trade officials to ease some of the secrecy protocols since April. And Brown said the August recess is the perfect time to ease the secrecy restrictions because members of Congress are home in their districts, freeing up valuable time for staffers to review the text.

"If they come to me in late August and say, 'OK, we'll let you read it now, lift the hold,' I say no," Brown said. "Because if that's their intent, to play out August, so my staff and other staff can't read this agreement — that game's over."

Congress granted "fast-track" authority to the White House in June, which allows the president wide latitude in trade deals, including TPP. Congress has 90 days to decide whether to give approval of TPP once the president signs it.

Despite threatening to hold up a confirmation, Brown vowed to keep working with USTR officials to the very end of the TPP deal.

Below is an exchange between Brown and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in April:

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.