The writer is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
This summer, 40 years after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace over Watergate, the onetime White House counsel who famously called the scandal a “cancer on the presidency” surfaced with a new book. In “The Nixon Defense,” John Dean revisited the coverup with an examination of more than 600 additional tapes from Nixon’s secret recording system. The verdict: The 37th president was even guiltier than we all believed.
But it’s time to revisit something else from that era: the reforms inspired by the mistrust of government that Watergate helped engender.
Following the deceptions of Vietnam and Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia, the Watergate scandal deeply wounded our nation’s faith in government. The campaigns for “good government,” aided by the conservative notion that “government is the problem,” propelled a series of reforms aimed at transparency, openness and the monitoring of decision-making.
These reforms included the passage or strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Government in the Sunshine Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, as well as a series of changes in the congressional committee process. They had a noble purpose: to restore public confidence in government by providing insight into its workings and greater access to the deliberative process.
But while openness is indeed key to a functioning democracy, there is a dark side to sunlight. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests. Most government staff now operate under the principle of “don’t write that down” and avoid raising concerns and challenging questions altogether for fear that they will be publicly revealed to embarrassing effect. Even text messages are targeted and, given the capability to digitize phone conversations, there could soon be even less room for private thought and consideration.
The opposite of transparency is privacy, not corruption. Despite the scars of past scandals, we must recognize that there are moments in government where the imperative for deliberation trumps the imperative for access.
While clearly well-intended, the requirements of open meetings are ironically driving serious discussions further underground. On federal advisory committees created to address national crises such as the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill or the 2008 financial crisis, for example, no more than two members could discuss substantive issues without advertising the meeting in the Federal Register and allowing the public to listen in. The result of such rules is not transparency but either a cumbersome sequence of two-person conversations, larger “informal” conversations that skirt the law or the avoidance of controversial issues.
In 2011 in Washington state, a redistricting commission was almost undone by a requirement that prevented more than two of the four members from meeting in private. Commission member Slade Gorton, a former U.S. senator, explained, “It was simply impossible to even begin to explore trade-offs or design a strategy with all the interests listening in.” After a few meetings that were reduced to posturing, they split the commission into two groups of two and divided up the work in order to grapple with the tough issues through informal discussions. Not even the Federal Reserve is immune; a recent study of its meeting minutes appears to indicate that even publishing these documents — weeks after the fact — has dampened discussion.
Moreover, transparency rules are rarely used by John and Jane Q. Public. They are now part of the standard tool kit of highly organized special interests and activists on the left and right. The great challenge in Congress today is finding leaders with the courage to balance the desires of narrow interests with the broader national interest. It is a lot tougher to summon the courage to explore bipartisan collaboration with one’s most intense constituents always peering over one’s shoulder, intent on punishing any violations of orthodoxy.
Most discouraging, the pursuit of ever-increasing transparency has not coincided with increased confidence in our government. A USA Today/Bipartisan Policy Center poll last year found that 77 percent of the public believed that it could trust the government in Washington to do what is right “only some of the time” or “none of the time” — an extraordinary indictment of a broken political system.
So what do we do to fix this? Start by giving federal employees the confidence that they can raise challenging questions and doubts at the early stages of a policy discussion without having to fear being humiliated down the road. Allow all manner of commissions and advisory bodies to conduct some deliberattions in private. Finally, we should urge Congress to restore the ability of committees to meet with some regularity behind closed doors, in a bipartisan manner, with the cameras turned off. Let them have some time when they can talk to each other — not a nationwide audience.
In general, we need to recognize that there is a healthy midpoint between engaging in massive coverups and publishing the text messages of Cabinet officials. Four decades after Watergate, we need to find it.