Vox | April 22, 2014
How the revolving door lets Hollywood shape Obama’s trade agenda
by Timothy B. Lee
The revolving door between industry groups and the Obama administration’s trade shop has been busy lately. Earlier this month, we learned that assistant US Trade Representative Stan McCoy has accepted a new job with the Motion Picture Association of Europe, Middle East, and Africa, a Hollywood lobbying group.
The announcement came a few weeks after the Obama administration announced it was naming a former software industry lobbyist to be deputy U.S. trade representative.
These personnel moves are the latest examples of what critics say is a disturbingly cozy relationship between the agency and industry groups that favor stronger copyright and patent protections.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative represents the United States in international trade negotiations. These agreements invariably include language on copyright and patent law, and the agency’s stance on these issues has been curiously one-sided.
For example, US trade negotiators have been pushing to require all countries to extend copyright terms. It also wants to prohibit generic drug makers from using safety and efficacy data that was previously produced by a brand-name drug maker. It’s obvious how these policies benefit Hollywood and the pharmaceutical industry, respectively. It’s hard to see how either policy benefits Americans more broadly.
Last year I wrote that at least a dozen former senior USTR officials have moved to industry groups that favor stronger protections. McCoy’s hire makes it a baker’s dozen. Previous hires include including Greg Frazier, who (according to hisLinkedIn page) spent 8 years as the executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America after a stint at USTR. Other former USTR officials took jobs at drug and medical device companies.
McCoy’s old job, assistant USTR for intellectual property and innovation, made him the Obama administration’s highest-ranking trade negotiator on patent and copyright issues. Jamie Love, director of the public interest organization Knowledge Ecology International, notes that this isn’t the first time USTR’s top intellectual property official has gone on to take a lobbying job. McCoy’s predecessor, Victoria Espinel, is now the head of the software industry group BSA.
Espinel’s predecessor at BSA was Robert Holleyman, the man Obama just nominated to a senior post at USTR. While at BSA, Holleyman supported the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have created an official internet blacklist to aid in anti-piracy efforts. (He backtracked a few weeks later after an uproar in the technology community.)
Another of McCoy’s predecessors as USTR’s top IP official is Joe Papovich, who later spent seven years as a lobbyist for the recording industry.
How the revolving door shapes USTR
So how do all of these personnel changes affect the USTR’s negotiating posture? I doubt public servants like McCoy consciously pursue dubious policies in an effort to curry favor with future employers. McCoy’s press representative hasn’t responded to my interview request, but I assume McCoy sincerely believes the Hollywood-friendly policies he advocated at USTR were in the interests of the nation.
But the revolving door between USTR and industry groups creates a strong but subtle pressure on USTR’s culture. Like many government agencies, USTR regularly turns to outside experts to help it sort through complex trade issues. Naturally, they turn to people they trust: their former colleagues — or even former bosses — who now work at trade organizations with plenty of resources to devote to understanding the minutia of trade policy.
And of course, as Holleyman’s hire illustrates, the revolving door can carry people in either direction. A USTR staffer’s former colleague who works at an industry trade group this year might be her boss next year. So over time, the culture and values of industry groups like the MPAA, BSA, and RIAA seeps into USTR. USTR staffers who cater to the interests of these industries are seen as team players and get promoted. Those who push for a more balanced approach are seen as trouble-makers and get marginalized.
The revolving door was hardly invented by the Obama administration. USTR has been swapping staffers with industry groups for decades. But the decision to hire Holleyman just as McCoy becomes a lobbyist for Hollywood presents an interesting contrast with Obama’s first presidential campaign, when he vowed that lobbyists "won’t work in my White House."
Update: USTR says it didn’t receive my email requesting comment for this story.