Why Open Government Is Occasionally Undesirable

On Wednesday, I argued that the sudden push to throw open the negotiations of the congressional "supercommittee" charged with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction was a bad idea that would make a deal less likely. A number of good-government types objected to what I wrote and insisted that openness was an imperative. I admire many of these people and organizations and support the important work they do to open up government; I suspect I'd share their views on almost any issue, so let me explain further why I differ with them on this one.


Often in Washington what happens behind closed doors is not in the public interest -- Dick Cheney meeting with oil company executives in the White House; lobbyists pressing a congressman to slip an earmark or a tax break into a bill, that sort of thing. Openness is desirable because it can serve as a deterrent against bad behavior. Even the knowledge that, say, a senator's appointment book will be available to the public and the press might prompt that senator to think twice about giving away the farm to some lobbyist or contributor. That's also true of congressional deliberations, and why it's important that most hearings are open to the public.
 
But the sad truth is that the supercommittee came into being as a last-ditch effort because the normal process has failed. Congress can no longer function. And as perverse as it sounds, one reason is because there is so much openness -- lawmakers in both parties, but especially House Republicans, are terrified of their activist base and understand that anything less than utter fealty will be regarded as an act of heresy. That makes comprise impossible. The problem is not openness, of course; the problem is Congress. But if your goal is to strike a compromise that cuts the deficit, then you must somehow improvise.

To groups like the Sunlight Foundation, this is alarming and it is the reason they are demanding openness: "This committee was designed to have to work, and Congress has been shunted out of the way. These procedural requirements add up to mean that the joint committee is functioning as a replacement for Congress, and needs to be more open than Congress in order to be considered legitimate."

That description is accurate, but I disagree with the conclusion. The whole point of the supercommittee is that it works outside the ordinary process -- to my mind, that's a feature not a bug. By shielding the negotiators from scrutiny, they're spared from having to posture for their respective bases, and will have room to offer concessions they wouldn't dream of making publicly. Personally, I'm skeptical that they'll succeed (pressure from outside will diminish; it won't disappear). But I'm not worried about shady dealings, a la Cheney and oil companies, because the deliberations will focus on removing, rather than giving away, tax breaks, loopholes, and favors. That's incredibly hard to do in the current political climate. If you want the negotiators to succeed in striking a deal where both sides sacrifice something, a private supercommittee is probably the best bet. And if they do strike a deal and it's terrible, there will be ample opportunity to press members of Congress to vote against it.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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