< Is Transparency Always A Good Thing?

Transcript

Friday, October 28, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:

And I'm Bob Garfield. They call it the Supercommittee, the United States Congress Joint Select committee on Deficit Reduction. This bipartisan group of six senators and six congressmen is charged with forging a deficit compromise before Thanksgiving, or else. The “or else” would be a 1.2-trillion-dollar automatic spending cut, largely from the defense budget. The committee negotiates in secret.

SUPERCOMMITTEE MEMBER:

Well, I'm not gonna go into all the details that happen within the supercommittee, but let me just say, we’ve had lots of back and forth, lots ...

SUPERCOMMITTEE MEMBER:

- say that, now listen, you know, I'm not gonna divulge everything that's happening in these discussions, but there has been progress.

SUPERCOMMITTEE MEMBER:

You know, I think these discussions are best left to the meetings and not to try to characterize them in the press.

BOB GARFIELD:

As transparency freaks, our reflex is to condemn a process so opaque. Yet, with the government frozen in the grip of unbreakable deadlock, we wondered, is this one of those moments when less sunlight is better? Donny Shaw is the lead writer for Open Congress, a project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, two leading transparency groups. Matthew Yglesias is a writer for Think Progress and a fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund. Donny, Matthew, welcome to On the Media.

DONNY SHAW:

It's good to be here.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS:

Thanks, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Donny, let's start with you. You have called the supercommittee, quote, “an anti- democratic institution by design.” How?

DONNY SHAW:

They pretty much wiped out the vast majority of Americans from the normal representative Democratic process. Most people don't have a representative serving on the committee, and that really limits how effectively the public can give input into the committee and how well they can hold them accountable.

BOB GARFIELD:

Matt?

MATTHEW YGLESIAS:

I don't think there's anything undemocratic about it, exactly. Any output that they do would still need to pass Congress and be signed by the President to come into law. I don't think that appointing special committees to, to do the detail work on issues is a particular violation of any of our principles.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, you know, I think there's someone who agrees with you. Let me, let me play you a little clip of tape. [LAUGHS]

[WEST WING CLIP]:

TOBY:

- we can’t consider anything, unless –

ANDY:

Why does this have to happen in secret?

TOBY:

‘Cause it’s the only way it’s gonna happen! ‘Cause you can’t solve Social Security and ask people to run for election at the same time! So why not give politicians some cloud cover and let ‘em be lawmakers for a while? Fifteen people in a room with the door closed...and they walk out of that room, and with one voice they make a recommendation to Congress and the American people!

BOB GARFIELD:

Matt?

MATTHEW YGLESIAS:

You know, the, the views that, that Toby Ziegler was espousing there in The West Wing, does seem correct to me. It’s not that - it's not that you want major policy changes to be made in secret, but you need people to be able to have secret discussions with one another about what their real negotiating positions are.

DONNY SHAW:

If a couple of members want to hold a meeting where they can discuss things over lunch or something, that's great. I just think that the standard operating procedure should be openness.

BOB GARFIELD:

You know, well that's sounds great but you and I both know that if you put a U.S. congressman in front of a microphone and ask what the weather is, you know, you're gonna get spin. They're just constantly processing political consequences of every single word they utter. Shouldn't we give them some permission to operate where they can actually say what's on their mind?

DONNY SHAW:

Transparency isn't just about cameras, it's about access to open government data so that we have time to review legislation, so that we have version control of legislation so we can see who put what provision in and where and why. And right now we're sorely lacking in those basic kinds of disclosures. 

MATTHEW YGLESIAS:

Certainly, I mean if they do reach an agreement, it would be fascinating to know, you know, who did what, what was whose idea. That kind of transparency about outcomes is really great. But I just think that if we want to have any optimism at all about the idea that this committee is going to solve the problem they’ve been tasked with solving, we have to let them hold their meetings, say what's really on their minds and have an honest negotiation. 

DONNY SHAW:

That hasn't been the case so far. So far, more than half of the meetings that the supercommittee has held have been secret from the public. On the other hand, they're not secret from corporations and special interests who can afford these expensive access lobbyists, who according to reports, are getting readouts from the committee meetings and are able to arrange then one-on-ones to protect their interest from the supercommittee.

BOB GARFIELD:

Can you document how much access insiders have to the still more inside members of the committee?

DONNY SHAW:

At this point, it's basically anecdotal. There have been some reports that already 200 groups have reported that they've been lobbying the supercommittee. One of the things we would support is quicker disclosure of both lobbying and campaign donations, while the supercommittee is in effect.

BOB GARFIELD:

Aren't there some legislative proposals on the floor to, to accomplish just that?

DONNY SHAW:

Yeah, there are, but I – I believe the, the bill in the House has – four co-sponsors and, you know, doesn't have any leadership support. It doesn't look lead to advance.

BOB GARFIELD:

Matt Yglesias, are you not concerned about the ability for others to influence the conversation or at least have access to it, while the – the rest of the citizenry is just completely shut out?

MATT YGLESIAS:

It's difficult in American politics to draw a super sharp contrast between, you know, the insiders and, and the rest of the citizenry. Americans are represented through associations and groups that they belong to and that, and that work in D.C. I think it's a huge problem that business interests have disproportionate power over Congress, relative to environmental groups or labor unions or, or something like that but, but that's a problem that, you know, relates to the social structure of the United States, to our campaign finance laws. Why would holding the meetings in public with cameras on actually resolve that?

BOB GARFIELD:

The whole notion of this supercommittee hinged on the assumption that the status quo wasn’t working. Is there any evidence that you guys can see so far that the supercommittee is behaving any differently than the Democratic and Republican parties at large?

MATTHEW YGLESIAS:

No. I mean, there's a very serious disagreement about the desirability of increasing taxes. And I don't believe that kicking this to one committee or another is gonna change that fact.

DONNY SHAW:

Yeah, I agree. I think that all indications show that this is just gonna end in a stalemate.

BOB GARFIELD:

Donny Shaw is lead writer for Open Congress, a project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. Matthew Yglesias is a writer for Think Progress and a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.