Magazine article Multinational Monitor

Advice and No Dissent: Public Health and the Rigged U.S. Trade Advisory System

Magazine article Multinational Monitor

Advice and No Dissent: Public Health and the Rigged U.S. Trade Advisory System

Article excerpt

THE UNITED STATES HAS SIGNED and is currently negotiating a striking array of trade agreements with countries around the world.

Critics charged that these trade deals reflect undue business influence over the U.S. trade negotiating process.

It turns out that industry influence is structured into the very machinery of the U.S. governmental trade bureaucracy.

In 1974, Congress created an international trade advisory system as a mechanism for input into trade negotiations from interested parties in the United States.

An extensive group of advisory committees now provide formal recommendations to the official U. S. trade negotiating agency, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). Business and trade association representatives dominate those committees.

But international trade agreements do not just affect narrow commercial interests. There is growing recognition that these trade deals can significantly shape public health-related policies both in the United States and in other countries, by requiring changes in laws and regulations and especially by foreclosing policy options that countries may wish to pursue in the future.

Public health advocates have called attention to trade agreement provisions that affect access to affordable prescription drugs, the public character of services such as healthcare and drinking water provision, standards for health professional licensing, alcohol and tobacco regulations, food safety standards, and rules on how governments procure goods and services, such as affordable medicines for veterans and seniors.

But public health advocates are nowhere to be found in the USTR trade advisory system. A 2002 report from the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, concluded that "new stakeholders in the trade process, such as public health ... have limited or no participation in the formal committee system, even though topics such as intellectual property are of interest to them." A restructuring of the trade advisory committees in August 2004 did not address this problem.

In contrast, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies and corporations from other industries with questionable public health records continue to maintain a number of seats on advisory committees.


Congress established the trade advisory committee system in the Trade Act of 1974. Over the years, Congress has amended the Act to broaden the purposes for which trade advisory committees provide advice to executive branch officials. The committees are supposed to provide advice both on negotiating objectives and the likely impact of agreements. By law, the executive branch is supposed to inform the advisory committees of "significant departures from their advice."

Trade advisory committees are subject to the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Each advisory committee covered by the Act is required to be fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented and committee functions performed. The legislative history of the Act "shows that the fair balance requirement was intended to ensure that persons or groups directly affected by the work of a particular advisory committee would have some representation on the committee."

It has required lawsuits, however, to include even minimal representation on advisory committees by non-industry groups, and to open up advisory committee proceedings.

Following a public outcry about the complete lack of environmental representation, USTR added a few environmental representatives to a handful of advisory committees in the 1990s. A Presidential Executive Order created a new Trade and Environmental Policy Advisory Committee in 1994.

But environmental groups remained locked out of the industry-specific advisory committees. In November 1999, several environmental organizations sued USTR, challenging the composition of two industry advisory committees that dealt with forest products. …

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