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Friday, July 15, 2011

Sunshine and Deliberation

At The Ripon Forum (h/t Frank Gregorsky) , former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-MN) writes :
For the past 50 years, the American public has placed a high value on transparency in its government. Open meeting laws are pervasive and popular in government. Transparency is rightly thought to be an integral part of our democratic process.

But all good things can be overdone. There are exceptions to nearly every good rule. While acknowledging that openness is a virtue, it is not a bad idea to recall that our own prized Constitution was put together under conditions of strictest secrecy.
As American politics have become more polarized, political activists at both ends of the spectrum have become less trusting of their representatives. The zealots of the polar constituencies -- who might tolerate a final compromise which were to include concessions by their opponents -- are highly intolerant of their own representatives “caving in” on any of their strongly-held positions as the negotiations proceed.

As noted, Congress has found a way “around” its open meeting rules. But statutory and presidential commissions, which are assigned the most divisive questions, cannot avoid the strictures of the open meeting law. In 1988, for example, The National Economic Commission was obliged to terminate its work after a successful lawsuit forced it to open up its discussions. Its members, including Reagan Administration appointees, union leaders, and congressmen, were unwilling to negotiate under the harsh glare of TV cameras.

The point is this – if we are going to rely on commissions to help us meet our most pressing fiscal challenges, we need to make sure they have the space and breathing room that will help them get the job done. To that end, future commissions of this nature should be granted some kind of waiver to give them a way around the open meeting law so that they can operate and deliberate in the same way the Framers did when they drafted the Constitution – in private. Otherwise, these commissions may be created in vain, like most of their predecessors.

Transparency and openness are wonderful for debates and for actual voting. However, history shows that they have been a real hindrance to successful bargaining and negotiating of tough issues, especially in today’s polarized political environment.