Here is a classic bit of Washington for you: On April 28 at 11 a.m., the Cato Institute will be hosting a public gathering titled “Restoring the Pro-Trade Consensus.” It looks like a panel discussion among several experts, with the headliner being Tim Reif, general counsel for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The discussion will center on the fate of the “bipartisan, pro-trade consensus that served U.S. interests so well for nearly six decades” and which “collapsed during the Bush administration.”

Of course, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part lies right in the roster (emphasis all mine): “Featuring Tim Reif, General Counsel, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (remarks off the record); Anne Kim, Economic Program Director, Third Way; and Dan Ikenson, Associate Director, Center for Trade Policy Studies, Cato Institute.”

Let me get this straight: You’re convening a fully public event, listing the thing on your Web site, getting the announcement in the listings of local papers, recruiting a huge audience of thinkers and hangers-on, yet you’re trying to declare an off-the-record rule?

Hey Cato, do you need government speakers so badly that you’ll violate all norms of logic and transparency just to nail one down? Think about how ludicrous this is: There’s going to be a panel discussion, and there’s no question that Reif and the other panelists will engage in an exchange of ideas. But anyone wishing to chronicle the exchange will be obligated to, like, delete Reif’s contributions because he’s off the record? Here’s how this would look on the page, in the event that Think Tank Chronicle sent a someone to file a report:

“Yesterday, Tim Reif, general counsel of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative participated in a discussion about trade policy at the Cato Institute. The session touched on the splintering of a political consensus that guided the country through NAFTA and other free-trade pacts but fell apart under the Bush administration. In a heated discussion, the Cato Institute’s Dan Ikenson argued that low trade barriers are so important that the United States should consider taking unilateral steps in that direction. Reif responded.

Picking up on Reif’s comments, Anne Kim argued that what Reif said wasn’t necessarily the case. Reif then said something else.”

You cannot speak into a microphone and be off the record at the same time. Those two things are incompatible and should never be attempted. And don’t think for a moment that Reif, or any other government official operating under the same rules, will use that off-the-record protection to say amazing and insightful things about U.S. trade policy. He’ll go common denominator all noon long. Because it’s a public event.