A Trade Deal Read In Secret By Only A Few (Or Maybe None) : It's All Politics To study the draft Trans-Pacific Partnership text, senators have to go to the basement of the Capitol and enter a secured, soundproof room and surrender their cellphones.

A Trade Deal Read In Secret By Only A Few (Or Maybe None)

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Deep in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, there's a soundproof room. And inside that room is a draft of a massive trade agreement currently under negotiation by the U.S. and 11 other countries. The White House has taken heat over what some call over-the-top secrecy around the negotiations. The Senate will soon vote on a bill that would give the president greater authority to enter into the trade agreement. But if senators want to read a draft of that deal, they'll have to go down to the Capitol basement. NPR's Ailsa Chang went to find it.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: It turns out the secret room is in a secret hallway that you can get to in a totally non-secret way. A newspaper photographer showed me.

Oh, you came out right here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mmhmm. Let's see. See what it...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

We went through a public hallway past a line of senate meeting rooms and then through a door marked exit. and there it was.

Oh, look at that.

A long hallway that looked nothing like the rest of the capitol - no marble floors, no plush carpets, just fluorescent light, blank white walls, a low ceiling and a Capitol police officer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're not supposed to be in here.

CHANG: Yeah, I got - I went in through those doors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're not supposed to be in this area.

CHANG: Here, let me show you. This is something - yeah, OK, I'm leaving. I'm leaving.

So I never got to the secret room. But Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown tells me not too many Senators have either, not lately.

SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: I would bet that none of my colleagues have read the entire document. I would bet that most of them haven't even spent a couple hours looking at it.

CHANG: Because, as Brown says, what good would staring at the draft do? It's hundreds of pages long, full of dense, technical jargon. When Senators enter this room, they must surrender their cell phones. Any notes taken must be left inside.

BROWN: It really begs the question, the secrecy begs the question, what's in this agreement that we don't really understand or know about?

CHANG: To be clear, Brown and many other Democrats already oppose the agreement because they feel it will hurt American workers. So secrecy is another argument they can throw at the trade pact, one that the White House dismisses. It says it's held more than 1,700 meetings on the Hill to help lawmakers understand the draft. Here's White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

JOSH EARNEST: If they're not aware of what's being negotiated, it's because they have failed to take the responsibility to read the document.

CHANG: And Earnest points out the security restrictions are necessary because negotiations are still ongoing. Publicizing terms before they're final makes bargaining more awkward. To Robert Mnookin, that makes perfect sense. He heads the negotiation program at Harvard Law School.

ROBERT MNOOKIN: In private, people can explore and tentatively make concessions, which if they publicly made, things would get shot down before you really had a chance to explore what you might be given in return for some compromise.

CHANG: The trade agreement will be made public 60 days before the president signs it. But that's after negotiations are over and the language can't be changed. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, The Capitol.

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