Before the House of Representatives reformed its ways, revenue and entitlement bills were routinely rammed through the Ways and Means Committee by its powerful chairman. Frequently it took many months before outside observers could figure out exactly which private interests had managed to walk away with what. That didn't strike most people as a good way of guarding the public interest, and 1973 reforms required that all meetings be open to the public unless a committee majority voted to close a particular session.

Since then open doors have been the rule at Ways and Means markups. But the people who have walked through those doors have not typically been the general public; rather, they have been the same powerful lobbyists who work the congressional corridors. Now they can make sure that the pressure they exerted on a congressman in private doesn't get dissipated when his colleagues press for compromise.

With the spotlight on them, congressmen spend much more time worrying about the quality of their own performances than the quality of the legislation they ultimately produce. Even minor technicalities get bogged down because legislators are embarrassed to admit they don't understand what's going on. Compromises get worked out in hasty corridor meetings or rammed through committee on party- line votes--and they tend to break down when a bill comes to the floor. And in the final chaos of a big tax markup it is still impossible for the public (and even the staffers) to figure out what happened.

The tax bill that recently emerged from Ways and Means was marked up in closed session. It is not a big revenue-raiser, but many provisions required considerable political courage. Judged by the speed and outcome of the process, closed doors certainly seem to have worked in the public interest in this case. That's not to conclude that closed sessions should be the rule. When it comes to handing out public benefits, secrecy can work very much against the general interest--witness the pork-barrel grab typical of closed appropriation subcommittee sessions.

By and large, the current rule seems to work well. Open sessions should be the general practice. But if a majority of a committee's members feels that a closed session is more appropriate for a particular measure, they should be willing to vote on the record for that decision. If the thing gets out of hand, you can be sure there will be plenty of noise about it.