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Would less transparency produce a better Congress?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 18, 2014 11:02 AM

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In the quest for better government, we’ve implemented a number of reforms at the state and federal level over the last several decades intended to open up our democracy—“sunshine laws,” which require elected officials to carry out committee deliberations in public; term-limits to weed out fat-cat incumbents; and anti-pork provisions which curb favor-trading in the legislative process.

These reforms are all well-intentioned, and make sense on an intuitive level, but a recent book-length report from the American Political Science Association says they can easily backfire, leading to more governmental dysfunction, not less.

The report was co-authored by political scientists Jane Mansbridge of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Cathie Jo Martin of Boston University. It is called “Negotiating Agreement in Politics” and it argues that, among other factors, more transparency sometimes produces worse government.

Mansbridge, Martin, and dozens of other political scientists on a task force that produced the report, examined previous research on negotiation, including everything from cognitive psychology studies about how people bargain, to data from international relations. They found that often, the conditions that provide for the best legislative outcomes run counter to conventional wisdom about how a democracy should operate.

First, people tend to negotiate in better faith when they know they’ll have to negotiate with the same person again down the line—which is why long-serving incumbents may be more motivated than term-limited firebrands to cut a deal.

Second, the report finds that private negotiations are often more productive than public deliberations. The post-Watergate era ushered in “sunshine laws,” which require legislative committees to deliberate in public. This was good for transparency, but in some ways bad for governing, because lawmakers are less willing to give ground in public, where they risk looking weak. (Just imagine, for example, how much more room Barack Obama and John Boehner would have to reach a budget agreement if they could have negotiated out of the tempestuous public eye.)

Third, the report gives a modified endorsement to the discredited practice of logrolling, or “side payments.” Martin is quick to point out that she and her colleagues don’t mean old-fashioned pork barreling, where legislators swap boondoggle public works projects. Rather, the report advocates for expanding the slate of issues up for negotiation—so that, to take a recent, failed, example, Republicans give on taxes while Democrats give on entitlement spending.

It’s a depressing exercise to think about reforms that might improve our government, because any kind of progress seems impossible right now. And, while secret committee meetings still seem antithetical to a healthy democracy, it’s hard to argue that things could get much worse than they are right now.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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