Transparency A Double-Edged Sword For Democrats

[ Posted Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 – 17:21 UTC ]

Democrats, from Barack Obama to the houses of Congress, have done a remarkable job of championing transparency in the legislative process of late, even though most people have barely noticed this trend (due, no doubt, to the media's lack of interest in the broad subject). Whether it will eventually help Democrats or hurt them politically is still an open question (as is the question of whether Democrats can ever manage to brag about anything positive they've managed to get done... which is always an open question when talking about Democrats). But I maintain that if the public gets used to such transparency, it'll be good for everyone, and good for American politics, in the end. Whether a few Democrats have to suffer to achieve this goal or not.

Some may not even know what I'm talking about, since Democrats certainly haven't had much success getting their message across on the issue. But since Democrats took over Congress, they have instituted new procedural rules -- which are absolutely unprecedented -- in terms of allowing the public to see how laws are made. This has meant the dealmaking that is "politics as usual" in Washington has been much more out in the open (or, more transparent) than the public is used to.

This has led to a certain amount of backlash, or blowback, eagerly fueled by Republicans. Republicans even succeeded in attaching cutesy names to some of these deals, such as the "Cornhusker Kickback" and the "Louisiana Purchase." And Republicans are gleefully planning on using this sort of rhetoric out on the campaign trail, in the very near future.

If this translates into Democratic losses in the near and middle terms, then this is the price Democrats may have to pay for pioneering such transparency in Congress. But my point is that no matter what happens to either party politically, I think it'll be good for the country in the long run.

Because the public is going to get used to a certain amount of transparency. And Republicans of late have been actually taking strong stands for such transparency (since they're the "out" party, this has meant being in favor of exposing Democratic dealmaking) -- which will come back to bite them, in a way.

Say for the sake of argument Republicans take over one or both houses of Congress this year. They would (if they wanted to keep such control) be pretty much forced to continue the same Democratic rules on transparency, or be excoriated by the voters who put them in power.

Take the "72-hour rule," for instance. This rule was dreamed up by Democrats, back when Republicans were running the show in Congress. The idea was simple: put legislation online, where the public could read it, for three full days before voting on it. This would give people a chance to see what Congress was voting on, and to uncover any shenanigans enclosed in any particular bill. Nancy Pelosi unilaterally decided the House was going to do this when she took over the Speakership, and they've been doing so ever since. The Senate has followed suit.

The problem is, the tactic remains open to mischief by both sides -- and it doesn't even matter who is in power, either. The whole point of the exercise is to stop the last-minute deal-making which routinely happens in Congress (call it "politics as usual"), where things are snuck into gigantic bills, which nobody has read, at the last possible minute. And Republicans certainly haven't been immune to such last-minute dealmaking when they run the show, I should explicitly point out.

But the "in" party writing the bill can be challenged by the "out" party to make such last-minute changes, by focusing the media glare on something they find objectionable. The "in" party has to revise the legislation slightly to fix the perceived problem, and then the "out" party demands the 72-hour clock start over. By endlessly repeating this cycle, the "out" party can delay the actual vote by continuing to push it out further and further (so that the vote is never actually held), and the bill enters a continuously-reset 72-hour purgatory of sorts.

Pelosi has ignored this sort of thing, which creates a loophole. If, as she avers, the "main bill" is online 72 hours before the vote, then "minor changes" don't have to reset the clock. The problem with this is that the "in" party is the one who gets to define what a "minor" change is -- which leads straight back to allowing the last-minute deals which the whole exercise is supposed to prevent.

It's a double-edged sword, in other words. It can cut both ways. The loophole can be used by either side, to achieve their objective of either passing a bill or stopping passage with endless delays.

But, lurching as it is, such a step is certainly one in the right direction. Politics as a whole is improved by allowing citizens access to legislation three days prior to a vote. And what the Republicans haven't yet realized (I am assuming) is that if they take over a house of Congress, they're going to face serious pressure to keep this 72-hour rule intact.

Sure, there will be abuse of the rule, and the loophole. But we could be at the start of a bedrock rule change in the way Congress does its business. If the public demands it of both parties, then abusing the loophole is going to be pointed out, no matter which party does it. But the rule may become such an ingrained tradition that it never goes away.

The 72-hour rule isn't the only example of the double-edged nature of introducing transparency to Congress. President Obama has been leading the fight on how lobbyists do their business in Washington, and it is easy to see that this is an area which is ripe for the sunshine of transparency, because it is so inherently corrupt to begin with. Obama, so far, has taken only the first small steps towards changing this culture of vote-buying, but they are welcome steps nonetheless. But again, this may hurt Democrats in the short run, especially considering the upcoming issue of Wall Street reform.

Democrats, contrary to popular myth, take lots of campaign cash from Wall Street. More so, recently, than Republicans. This is normal operating procedure in Washington, because the "in" party always rakes in the big bucks from lobbyists -- the "out" party always has fundraising problems for the simple reason that they aren't in power. If you are a big Wall Street interest and you want to purchase a few Congresscritters, the fact is that your money will "go farther" if you buy the ones who are writing the new laws -- it's as simple as that. So, again, while this may hurt Democrats in the short run (if lobbyist money becomes considered seriously tainted by the voters), then politicians will shy away from it. But the only way to change this is through transparency -- again, where Democrats have led, on mandatory financial disclosures for lawmakers. We now know one heck of a lot more about where people in Congress get their money than we used to under a Republican Congress, and, again, in the long term the public is going to demand this level of disclosure no matter who is in charge.

Earmarks are another area where Democrats have been leading the effort to curtail this odious practice. Killing earmarks off doesn't mean killing off special projects for congressional districts, as the media has largely been portraying the issue. All it means is that these dead-of-the-night single-district candy-dispensing earmarks will be forced into the regular committee process. If your sewer project is important enough for federal funds, then you've got to publicly make the case for it, and get it inserted into the regular budgeting process, instead of sneaking it in with the legislative end-run of an earmark. It doesn't stop the flow of federal money, in other words, but it does shine a bright light on the process of how the money is divvied up. And, again, Democrats have led the way on this issue, at least up until now. They haven't totally forsworn earmarks, however, they've just reduced the use of them severely from the drunken-sailor Republican Congress which preceded them (by about half, if memory serves). So they've still got a ways to go on getting rid of earmarks.

On all of these transparency issues, Democrats may pay a short-term price for leading the effort to inject sunshine into the backrooms of Congress. Because they are in control, it is their deals which are being thus exposed. The senator from Nebraska who held out for the "Cornhusker Kickback" is a good example. Not only have I never heard before of such a special deal being given its own media-friendly label in American politics, I have never seen such a stunning reversal by a politician after he began to be ridiculed regularly on national television. Realizing how sleazy the whole deal looked, the senator soon tried to disavow the very deal he held out for, and his fellow Democrats realized it was such a liability that they stripped it out altogether in the reconciliation bill. That is paying a political price for dealmaking.

And as such, it is a welcome development. I'm always in favor of transparency, no matter who gets exposed. Whether Democrats suffer political setbacks for it, or whether it hurts Republicans, it's a non-partisan issue with me. Because by exposing such dealmaking, the transparency may force Congress to give it up altogether, in the long run. If it becomes a serious political liability for you to make such a deal, then you will think twice about making it.

Republicans, if they ever take over a house of Congress, may find (much to their surprise) that they are going to be expected to follow the same rules Democrats are now attempting to lay down. If they don't put bills online for three days before a vote, then the public is going to want to know why -- especially since there are so many quotes from them (in the past few months alone) demanding Democrats live up to this promise. Republicans are going to find it almost impossible, I would warrant, to ever attempt to do away with this rule altogether. The loophole will continue to be redefined, of course, but if the movement is towards more disclosure then we will be heading in the right direction, at least.

To conclude, I think the movement towards transparency, and away from sleazy deals and lobbyists writing legislation, is a good and worthy goal to aim for. I do wish Democrats would even make the attempt to explain why they are the ones who have ushered in these changes, in the hopes of making a little political hay out of the moral issue involved, but so far haven't seen much of this sort of thing (with the sole exception of Nancy Pelosi, who does indeed beat this drum publicly). Because no matter whether transparency turns out to be a winner at the ballot box for Democrats, or whether some Democrats get voted out precisely because of the exposure of "politics as usual," it remains a good thing for the public. And, even if Democrats do lose politically because of it, even if Republicans take over, they're going to find that the public holds them to the same standards the Democrats have laid down. Which, like I said, is a good thing for the American electorate in general, no matter who is in charge.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Transparency A Double-Edged Sword For Democrats”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    What is really ironic is that the level of transparency we are seeing, while increased, is NO WHERE near the level we were promised..

    If we actually DID have the level of transparency we were promised, CrapCare would have never happened..

    For those that think CrapCare is the second coming, it's food for thought..


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Having said the above, I am in complete agreement with the commentary..

    In most aspects of government, transparency is definitely a plus and to the advantage of the American public.

    Let's hope that, when the GOP becomes the majority Party after the mid-terms, that they strive to deliver the same (or even higher) level of transparency.


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am also constrained to point out that the fact that the "sausage-making" process was laid bare for all to see had less to do with the Democrats and their "desire" for transparency, but rather much more to do with the fact that everyone, including the majority of Americans, were against CrapCare..


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