Transparency in government is a good thing, right?
That depends. What was created to end corruption and bad government can actually lead to both, according to James D’Angelo and Brent Ranalli in their May/June article in “Foreign Affairs” entitled, “The Dark Side of Sunlight.”
The problem has been growing for decades—since 1970 when a group of liberal Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives spearheaded a series of laws known as “sunshine reforms.” These laws were supposed to make legislators more accountable to their constituents. What it actually did was to increase the number of votes that were recorded and to permit the public to attend committee meetings where they were not previously allowed.
Back in the late 1960s, liberal Democrats were frustrated with their committee chairs. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Conservative Democrats from the South chaired Congressional committees. They often sided with Republicans to block liberal reforms by setting the agendas. To work around these roadblocks, the liberals pushed for transparency, which would reveal the voting records to the public. It would give them an excuse to vote against their committee chairs without being punished, by telling them, “Sorry, I can’t help you on this one, my constituents are watching.”
This greater openness would allow labor unions, public issue nonprofits and environmental groups to keep track of voting. It would also allow the Democratic Party to more closely discipline their members by doling out rewards for cooperation.
This strategy worked, enabling the liberals to get their reform agendas passed into law. Using this tactic caused increased support from environmental groups and anti-Vietnam war lobbies. Because of this pressure, the House voted on the Vietnam war, something the more conservative Democrats and Republican leadership had avoided doing for years. Over the next few years, Congress passed environmental laws and consumer protection legislation.
Eventually, though in the 1970s, corporations, special interests, foreign governments, and members of the executive branch saw the transparency laws as a way to increase their power. They could now track how members of Congress voted. Money followed voting records. No longer was it possible for compromises with the opposing party to be reached out of sight. Useless amendments were proposed, purely for the purpose of political theater. Lawmakers were treated like children under the watchful eyes of the supervising special interests. Politicians were incentivized to play to their base, and the whole atmosphere became increasingly polarized and dysfunctional.
By 1977, according to D’Angelo and Ranalli, Congress “stopped passing liberal legislation and started doing the bidding of big business.” Foreign interests used the voting records to influence legislation. “By 1973, foreign governments and businesses accounted for more spending on lobbying in Washington than the 7,200 domestic lobbyists registered with Congress…. Special interests today thrive on transparency.”
Ironically, the Constitution itself was framed in secrecy. The Founders boarded up the windows of Independence Hall. The doors were guarded by armed sentries. Alexander Hamilton noted, “Had the deliberations been open while going on, the clamors of faction would have prevented any satisfactory result.” James Madison agreed: “No Constitution would ever have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public.”
The framers permitted legislators to withhold publication that “may in their Judgment require Secrecy.” This approach worked successfully for 180 years. It provided the ambiguity needed to keep multiple constituents thinking their requests were being heeded.
D’Angelo and Ranalli advocate a return to secrecy at least before Congress votes in the Senate and the House. That would reduce the death grip special interests hold on our representatives. It’s unlikely, though, that things will change quickly because of the fear of the unknown. Those who hold the power tend to resist changes that threaten their control.
Something needs to be done to end Congressional dysfunction. A return to the secrecy of the framers may be the solution, at least until a counterstrategy arises to thwart the best intentions of reformers. Solving one problem as the liberal Democrats did in 1970 meant that special interests gained greater power from that time on. Whatever the solution, it still gets down to, “It’s all about power.”