Debt Limit Secrecy


Every time we learn something about the debt ceiling negotiations, we should take it with a big grain of salt. Everything we learn has probably been shared only because someone at the table had something to gain by sharing it.

The public has been left out of the debt ceiling discussion entirely. That’s an undesirable place to be, since it creates incentives for dishonesty and collusion. Both sides selectively disclose details about their discussions, accusing the other of bad faith, or to painting themselves as heroes in self-congratulatory vignettes leaked to the press.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of telling what’s real, and what’s contrived.  And most press coverage takes claims about the talks at their face value, somehow ignoring that those disclosures are intended to manipulate the narrative.  Perhaps for lack of an alternative, the media is left repeating all accounts of the “closed door” meetings as though they’re not part of the negotiations themselves.

I was interviewed for today’s Washington Times, covering the secrecy of the negotiations:

“What they’re delivering here is absolute lack of meaningful disclosure and completely secretive discussions about enormously important decisions that they’re making, and that’s just not an acceptable state of affairs.”

There’s plenty of parties to blame here.  Congress has failed to do its job, and is basically abdicating its responsibilities to an ascendent Executive Branch. And each symbolic bill that passes the House or Senate only further divorces Congress from non-theatrical legislating.

This hypocrisy isn’t new, either.  Members of the party out of power routinely vote against satisfying our outstanding obligations, claiming it’s the more responsible move, only to reverse course in the majority. (As Obama is now doing, having voted against the raise in the debt ceiling in 2006.)

Perhaps the current state of affairs shouldn’t be a surprise, then, if hypocrisy around the debt limit is a perennial event. There was even a House Rule, until this year, that bills to raise the debt limit would be introduced by the House itself, saving the trouble for any individual Member. Congress has long been content to shield Members, and therefore the public, from what debt limits are about.

And now, divided government has moved the debt limit vote from being a normal political football party-line vote, to being the subject of hardline negotiation tactics. Much of the right will inevitably be angry that the vote won’t be used strongly enough to reduce spending, and much of the left will be upset that the faith of the country was subject at all to being a bargaining chip in yet another game of revenues chicken.

Ultimately, though, the negotiations are happening out of the public view because debt limit issues have been treated for years as too grown up for public consumption — appropriate for politicking, but as a substantive matter, only fit for experts.  And now party leaders have to deal with the reality their political line has created — public expectations that will render their actions unpalatable.

For many DC insiders, this is viewed as an inevitable situation — the realities of fiscal policy should be shielded from public consumption, best negotiated in a back room, and then dressed up and sold to the public (by the negotiators themselves) as a compromise that saves the day, even as the full terms of the compromise never get aired.  (We still don’t know what party leaders promised each other in the last budget fight — Senate votes? Support for other provisions?)

That insider perspective, though, strikes me as part of the problem.  Budget secrecy is caused, in part, by unrealistic public expectations.  The further the President and party leaders walk from substantive public discussion, the more our politics will be waged on myths and caricatures.

Requiring all negotiations to be public would be very difficult, if not impossible.  But the current state of affairs reflects a failure of our politics, and a weak spot in our representative democracy. And we don’t have to accept it as normal, or desirable.