What is the value of transparency? I was listening to the most recent episode of On the Media, and they had a debate about the Super Committee. One side argued that it was a problem for these negotiations to be going on behind closed doors. Which sounds reasonable, right? We live in a democracy after all. Why should the process of government be hidden from the people?
But let’s take a step back. What is really at stake here? The Super Committee is not some secret organization that has free reign to impose its will. Frankly, it might be better if it were. But what we’ve actually got is a small group of people who will attempt to produce a single recommendation that can get support from a majority in the House and the impossibly elusive 60 votes in the Senate. Which is to say: whatever they recommend only becomes law if it goes through the normal procedure for legislative action.
Now, if you want to call anything anti-democratic about this process, you would almost certainly be better off focusing on the supermajority requirement in the Senate. But let’s set that aside entirely.
The real question, it seems to me, has to be whether we value openness for its own sake, or if we value it as a mechanism for achieving some other good. I’m sure there are some people who simply value openness as a basic principle. But I don’t really see the point of it in that sense.
I think when most people think about openness in government what they really want is better representation. That is: they fear that secret deals will reflect embedded (special) interests, rather than representing the genuine will of the people. By exposing negotiations to sunlight and public scrutiny, the argument goes, they won’t be able to hide behind anonymity.
But there is a serious countervailing force here. Namely: public deliberation can very easily provoke worse representation. Public conversation makes it incredibly easy to assign blame. And there’s nothing people like more than assigning blame. The whole premise here is that people need to forge a compromise that won’t make anyone happy. In those circumstances, people who are angry about something are going to be far louder than people who see something as an acceptable compromise. Given that, sunshine is likely to just make deliberations pure show.
The additional factor is the timing of persuasion. Attempting to justify compromises while they are being discussed (and might not even be used) is a fool’s game. There’s nothing more aggravating to a politician than sticking your neck out, risking your built-up capital, to defend something only to have it stripped out the next day. The risk of that often means people simply won’t bother proposing the thing in the first place.
However, justifying a single bill at the end of the process is far easier. You’re not stuck defending stuff that didn’t make it. You can sell all the advantages and minimize the losses. You can work with other messaging agents to speak with the same voice. And you can credibly argue that this is a take-it-or-leave-it scenario. That’s not to say it’s EASY, but you’ve got something to work with.
There is some substantial pedigree for this. The original Constitutional Congress worked in secret, for precisely these reasons. They wanted people to feel free to express any ideas and not have to worry about their reputation. And they didn’t want arguments made during the deliberations, considered but dismissed, to resurface in the colonial versions of attack ads.
What do we want out of public deliberation? Do we want it to be public in the sense that the public gets to watch and be involved? Or do we want it to be public in the sense that the interests of the public are represented? Those certainly don’t NEED to conflict, but if they do, which matters more? To me, the latter is far more significant. If secret conversations make it easier for people to speak in the interests of the public – rather than in fear of personal electoral damage – that seems great.
None of this is to suggest that the Super-Committee is actually worth anything. The more basic problem is that the blame game on the Right has expanded to the degree that anyone in Congress who votes for any bill that raises taxes at all is going to get crucified. The filtering mechanism of the committee just provides no meaningful shield.
So the whole thing is a bit of a sham – and all the complaints about secrecy are terminally irrelevant. But I still find it interesting to think about.