|South Korean Ambassador Han Duk-Soo and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk|
By BEN FREEMAN
The U.S. Congress passed free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama on Wednesday. But this was not diplomacy as usual--this was pay-to-play diplomacy.
These three foreign governments spent at least $15 million on lobbying and public relations in their efforts to promote passage of their respective free trade agreements, as The Hill reported last week. Coupled with a sizeable effort by pro free-trade U.S. multinational businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this resulted in lopsided House and Senate votes in favor of passing all three agreements.
With such a powerful and well-financed campaign, passage of the agreements may, in hindsight, seem like a foregone conclusion. However, just a year and a half ago, the deals were stagnating. For instance, some Members of Congress were concerned that if the agreement with South Korea wasn’t modified, the U.S. would risk unintentionally importing goods from North Korea.
To turn the tide in the fight, the South Korean government and the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) hired D.C.’s largest lobbying firm, Patton Boggs. According to Department of Justice (DOJ) records filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Patton Boggs believed that through the firm’s connections and influence they could limit modifications to the agreement:
“Our ties with the Democratic Congressional Leadership and with senior officials in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. labor organizations, and U.S. automobile companies will enable us to garner information and help determine exactly which provisions must change or be supplemented....Our Firm has used such backchannel communications and negotiations to help broker needed revisions to advance several other floundering Free Trade Agreements.”
Patton Boggs wasn’t bluffing about their ability to use “backchannel communications.” The firm has since contacted policymakers, including House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Michael Freeman, about the South Korea free trade agreement more than 350 times, according to a Project On Government Oversight analysis of DOJ records. They also distributed informational materials to policymakers—materials that the DOJ once referred to as “propaganda”—and met with Super Committee co-chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) to discuss the free trade agreement just two weeks ago.
Additionally, the firm made campaign contributions to some of the representatives they contacted on behalf of their foreign client. For example, as we reported last week, Super Committee member Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) received at least $7,000 from Patton Boggs and the firm’s lobbyists within a week of meeting with them to discuss the South Korea free trade agreement.
Patton Boggs certainly wasn’t alone in their efforts to promote that agreement, and they weren’t the only firm to make contributions to representatives they contacted about the issue. On three separate occasions, Kirsten Chadwick, a partner at the lobbying firm Fierce, Isakowitz & Balock, made campaign contributions to Members of Congress on the very same day she met with them to discuss the South Korea free trade agreement.
Patton Boggs also wasn’t the only firm to distribute propaganda in support of these trade agreements. In 2010 and 2011, nearly two dozen informational materials supporting the agreements were filed with DOJ. The South Korea free trade agreement alone was promoted in more than a dozen informational materials. Amongst a laundry list of superlatives, these propaganda pieces touted “the economic benefits and opportunities to U.S. businesses, farmers, and workers,” and cautioned that if the agreement was not passed, the U.S. could “suffer a net loss of more than 345,017 jobs.”
Overall, this enormous undertaking, where private firms effectively brokered free trade agreements with the largest economy in the world, shows that it’s time to abandon any antiquated notions of diplomacy purely being the domain of diplomats. Firms like Patton Boggs and Fierce, Isakowitz & Balock set meetings, shaped public opinion, suppressed dissenting views, and ultimately found the common-ground that led to these agreements being ratified. Without this influence, these trade agreements might all be in the same floundering state they were in just two years ago. The $15 million spent by foreign interests on these lobbying and public relations campaigns was the price for free trade. Diplomacy has been privatized.
Ben Freeman is POGO's National Security Fellow.
Photo via Flickr user TalkMediaNews.