Gary D. Bass is executive director of the Bauman Foundation. Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Norman Eisen, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, was White House special counsel for ethics and government reform from 2009 to 2011. This commentary was drawn from a longer paper published by Brookings in November.
In 2014, a number of big thinkers made the surprising claim that government openness and transparency are to blame for today’s gridlock. They have it backward: Not only is there no relationship between openness and dysfunction, but more secrecy can only add to that dysfunction.
As transparency advocates, we never take openness for granted. The latest example of the dangers of secrecy was the “cromnibus” bill, with its surprise lifting of campaign finance limits for political parties to an astonishing $3 million per couple per cycle, and its suddenly revealed watering down of Dodd-Frank’s derivatives safeguards. And in parallel to the controversy over the release of the CIA’s torture report, that agency proposed to delete e-mail from nearly all employees and contractors, destroying potential documentary evidence of wrongdoing. Openness doesn’t happen without a struggle.
Add to that struggle the arguments of those, such as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Jason Grumet, who claim transparency is undermining our democracy. He argues that to solve government gridlock it is time to revisit the transparency and accountability reforms that “Watergate helped engender,” claiming there is a “dark side to sunlight.” But there is a mismatch between the problem and Grumet’s solutions. No one doubts that Congress is in gridlock. But the Freedom of Information Act and most other post-Watergate reforms he targets do not even apply to Congress, and no rules prevent private conversations between members of Congress.
Grumet argues that transparency rules have undermined deliberation in the executive branch as well. While FOIA and other post-Watergate sunshine laws may need updating, their minor flaws are hardly causing government dysfunction or preventing government officials from having candid conversations. In 2013, there were 81,752 “deliberative” moments — the most ever — where executive-branch information was withheld from reporters and the public under FOIA. If anything, the problem is that too many decisions are made in secret, not too few.
The Atlantic’s David Frum and the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch argue that cameras in Congress are part of the problem. But the truth of the matter is that cameras were installed on the House floor in 1979 and in the Senate in 1986, with no dramatic negative effect on productivity. True, some members posture for cameras, but congressional productivity did not fall off a cliff until 2011, when the tea party wave hit. You can’t blame that on transparency.
Academics, such as Francis Fukuyama, make the case that politicians need privacy and discretion — back-door channels — to get the business of government done. “The obvious solution to this problem would be to roll back some of the would-be democratizing reforms, but no one dares suggest that what the country needs is a bit less participation and transparency,” writes Fukuyama in his newest book. At a time when voter participation is as low as during World War II, it seems strange to call for less participation and democracy. And more secrecy in Congress isn’t going to suddenly create dealmaking. The 2011 congressional “supercommittee” tasked with developing a $1.5 trillion deficit reduction deal operated almost entirely in secret. The problem wasn’t transparency or openness. Instead, as the committee’s Republican co-chairman, Jeb Hensarling, stated, the real problem was “two dramatically competing visions of the role [of] government.” These are the real issues, not openness.
Other critics, such as Rauch, want a return to the days of “honest graft” and smoke-filled rooms to get the wheels of government rolling. For instance, they want to bring back congressional earmarks. But from 2007 through 2010, the years when earmark transparency was required, earmarks didn’t decline. Makes sense — what is the point of bringing home the pork if you can’t brag about it? Transparency had little to do with killing earmarks. In fact, if you like earmarks, you should love transparency.
More graft — whether in the form of anonymous campaign contributions, patronage or other “deals” — adds to rigging the system in favor of powerful special interests. The “good corruption” that the critics hope more secrecy will create simply opens new avenues for “bad corruption” to occur — which is precisely why we still need a good dose of sunshine.
We are not transparency absolutists. Not everything government and Congress do should occur in a fishbowl; that said, there is already plenty of room today for private deliberations. The problem isn’t transparency. It is that the political landscape punishes those who try to work together. And if various accountability measures create procedural challenges, let’s fix them. When it comes to holding government accountable, it is in the nation’s best interest to allow the media, nonprofit groups and the public full access to decision-making.
Rather than demonizing transparency for today’s problems, we should look to factors such as political parties and congressional leadership, partisan groups and social (and mainstream) media, all of which thrive on the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. Technology now allows “trackers” and other observers to capture politicians’ misstatements and use instant distribution channels to produce a steady stream of “gotcha” moments. Add in the corrosive influence of money in politics and non-democratic election procedures, and you have a toxic mixture that makes it challenging for government to function.
Like the majority of Americans, we, too, are frustrated with governmental dysfunction — but we are even more frustrated with the secrecy that produces atrocious provisions such as those in the “cromnibus.” Instead of going back to the days of Tammany Hall and secrecy, let’s work for a 21st-century government we can be proud of.