This post is brought to you by….
Matt Yglesias likens transparency in Congressional negotiations with transparency in family negotiations:
Think about a family negotiation over whose house you spend the holidays at, or who goes to watch Billy’s soccer game on Saturday. At the end of the day, wouldn’t everyone be worse off if the whole extended clan had the right to watch the negotiation on C-SPAN? More to the point, wouldn’t knowledge that the proceedings were going to be seen by others bias the negotiation. If your husband says “you don’t even like your cousin John” then you more or less have to protest and insist that you do too like him and any proposal predicated on the idea that you don’t like him needs to be rejected.
And that’s how it would go in negotiations. I think people think that if there were more transparency, the dread special interests would have less hold over the process. But I suspect the real result would be the reverse. What happens when you reach a compromise is both sides agree to sell some folks out in pursuit of some bigger objective they care more about. But in a transparent process, nobody would be willing to even hypothetically entertain the idea of selling anybody out.
Ezra Klein adds:
Of course, if the whole clan was watching, the husband would never mention your antipathy to your cousin John. And that’s the bigger problem: Hard issues never get discussed at all. You’d have some private talk and then some fake public negotiations where you followed a predetermined conversational route to the ending you settled on behind closed doors.
Now, this is true to an extent. One significant difference between family negotiations and government negotiations is the set of incentives. There are no lobbyists when a husband and wife decide where to spend Christmas (unless you count the kids or the competing relatives). Nor is there typically a great deal of money at stake. And while family negotiations are typically quite personal, government negotiations are not. Obviously hashing out disagreements about our family members is not something we want to do in public because, at the end of the day, we’d like to maintain some ties with even those family members who we may be complaining about. These same deep bonds simply don’t exist in the public policy arena. So it is not merely a difference of scope but a difference of kind which causes this analogy to fall apart.
Would lobbyists and government officials simply negotiate behind closed doors prior to negotiating in public as Ezra suggests? Probably. However, there are other ways to make the process more transparent. Even if negotiations remain behind closed doors, certainly the results of these transactions could be made more visible. Certainly there could be a better way to publicly advertise who is being lobbied by whom.
This is the information age after all. The trick isn’t a lack of information – the trick is distributing that information and making it as easy to understand for as many people as possible.
A simple solution would be to treat our congressmen (and women) like NASCAR drivers. Simply stick a bunch of sponsor logos and industry stickers all over them so that we can see that when Congressman A votes for more farm subsidies, it’s because Big Agriculture is paying him to. Or when Senator Y votes against defense cuts, it’s because [insert weapons manufacturer here] has donated to his re-election fund. Have their staffers do the same. Have each bill enacted in Congress prefaced with a "This bill is brought to you by…." credits section.
And so on and so forth. There are plenty more ways (and even some not-tongue-in-cheek ways) to make the connections between our representatives and the special interests they represent more obvious and accessible. Not all special interest influence is necessarily bad either – but it’s good to know who is at least ostensibly pulling the strings – and how hard.