Effective trade negotiations are not secret –they are private. There is a difference.


The foes of free trade have a new favorite line of attack: They’re against secrecy.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, condemns the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “secret trade deal.” AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka complains that TPP has been “devised in secret.”

It sounds so sinister.

Yet nothing could be more ordinary. As with any negotiation, the talks surrounding TPP have not been “secret” so much as “private.” And that’s exactly the way they should be—even though WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last week offered $100,000 for a copy of the draft agreement.

If you’ve ever bought a house, you’ve probably engaged in a confidential negotiation. Perhaps you told a real-estate agent about how much you’re willing to pay or whether the owner must fix that leaky roof before you sign a contract. Maybe you want the house so much you’re willing to fix the roof on your own later.

It would make no sense to let the seller read a transcript of this private conversation.

Surely the critics of TPP know this. When Sen. Warren meets with her staff about a bill they’re writing, do they conduct “secret” negotiations? Or do they merely have a private talk about what to put in, what to leave out, and where she’s willing to compromise?

So until Sen. Warren starts to broadcast her staff meetings on C-SPAN, none of us should take seriously her denunciations of a “secret” trade deal whose details are still not finalized.

The same goes for Trumka. Is he willing to let reporters or the general public join him at his next labor negotiation, when he sits across the table from management?

Of course not. That would be ridiculous.

I have some experience with labor talks. As a volunteer board member of the Camden County Mosquito Extermination Commission, I help negotiate salaries, benefits, and working conditions for our employees. These can require months of difficult bartering. Making them public as they occurred might make it impossible ever to reach an agreement.

WikiLeaks probably doesn’t care about our little county commission. But I’ve also joined U.S. trade delegations to Geneva, for conversations at the World Trade Organization. Several years ago, we met with representatives from Central America and India to discuss reforms to agricultural trade. The stakes were high, both then and now, and they’re complicated by all kinds of factors, including language and culture.

The only way to have an honest conversation is to know that nobody is eavesdropping—and this principle holds true for TPP.

TPP is an intricate proposal that involves the United States and 11 other countries. The goal is to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services across borders. The Peterson Institute for International Economics has estimated that TPP could boost U.S. exports by $124 billion per year.

TPP enjoys the strong support of President Obama. Several Republican presidential candidates have said they support it as well, in an example of the bipartisanship that our country sorely needs.

Talks began a decade ago, but only now is the end in sight. If these negotiations had been televised or if draft documents had been released along the way, nothing would have gotten done. Participants would have performed for the cameras rather than engaging in a serious give-and-take that serves the public interest.

That’s why TPP must remain “secret,” at least for now. Our trade diplomats are still working on it. When they’re done, the text of the deal will see the light of day. Everyone will have time to read it over and join a vigorous debate about whether the United States should accept the agreement.

As with all trade agreements, this one won’t make everybody happy. That’s the nature of any negotiation: You work to reach a positive consensus, and always try to fight the temptation of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

I’m hopeful about TPP. Yet I’m also happy to withhold final judgment until the appropriate time, when what’s private becomes public. Then there will be no secrets and we’ll all have our say.

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets.  John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

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Note – this column first appeared in USA Today.

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, previously raising 1,400 acres of fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm now raises 70 acres of field corn and John advises local farmers on growing and marketing retail vegetables. John volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and has provided leadership to the Farmland Preservation Board, the Vegetable Growers Association of New Jersey and New Jersey Tomato Council. As a former New Jersey Farm Bureau President, his interest and long-time support of free trade was supported by his involvement in 11 international trade missions and engagement in World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and Geneva.

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