Yesterday the Atlantic ran an opinion piece by a senior editor arguing that the increasingly popular push to get the Super Committee to adopt a strong transparency regime is "an absolutely terrible idea." The author’s opinion seems to come in part from a basic misunderstanding of what a strong transparency regime looks like. It also seems, though, that he sees a very different world than the one we have seen in experience.
Let’s start with the author’s slug line above the piece; it reads, "The idea that private negotiations to cut the deficit are somehow bad is fatuous and ill-considered." First, we must point out that even a strong transparency regime leaves room for some private negotiations among Super Committee members. The recommendations made by us and our partners call for live webcasts of all official meetings and hearings. We all recognize the need for some private negotiating space, but that is no reason to completely shut the public out of the deliberations.
The author first argues that the Super Committee should not be transparent because it will make negotiations more difficult. In part, this belief could come from the author’s misunderstanding of our recommendations. Even taking that into account, though, we are at a loss to explain the author’s contention in light of the negotiations that occurred prior to Congress passing the debt ceiling bill. The closed-door negotiations among a limited cast of characters allowed small, but very vocal, constituencies (from both sides of the aisle) to exert disproportionate power. By adopting more open door policies, the Super Committee can create an environment that fosters an informed, engaged citizenry and honest debate– a recipe for helping make sure a few voices cannot so easily drown out the many.
In the next paragraph, the author sets up, and knocks down, a straw man argument — that calls for transparency are "grounded in [a] fear that the negotiators will hit upon some radical or dangerous new idea." This seems to imply that, because Congress and various official and non-official panels have made a variety of proposals that have been discussed in public, the public does not need to know what options from that menu – and others – may come under serious consideration by the Super Committee. As the final decisions based on those considerations will touch all our lives in some way, the public should be part of the discussion.
The author ends the piece with a claim that transparency helps special interests by allowing them "to pressure the negotiators and poison the political atmosphere in advance of any deal." The author seems to be unaware of or ignoring the fleet of K Street lobbyists already gearing up to protect their clients’ special interests. These lobbyists don’t have to go to open meeting to get face time with a committee member; they give their clients special access because they have the ability to set up private meeting with committee members and their aides. Open meetings are the only way the public gets any kind of access. Moreover, he seems to be ignoring that transparency is about a lot more than just open or closed meetings. The majority of the openness community’s minimum recommendations speak directly to combatting special interests (post online a record of every meeting held with lobbyists and other powerful interests; post campaign contributions online as they are received; and; post online the financial disclosures of committee members and staffers).