“Fiscal Cliff” Casts Shadow of Secrecy


Just like the debt limit negotiations and Supercommittee process that helped cause it, the so-called “fiscal cliff” of expiring laws is creating another round of secretive negotiations among our political leaders. The heads of both parties now thrive on stories of impending fiscal consequences, even when they’re of their own making.

To cope with a polarized electorate, our leaders have figured out a way to create an apparent impending disaster that is unpalatable regardless of one’s ideology. Whatever the outcome of their fight with each other, they’ve created a dystopian future against which they can be made to look like heroes warding off impending doom with their brave bipartisanship.

It doesn’t really matter which party started it (both of them) or whether this was avoidable (it was), because divided government has again led us to a place where the most important policy decisions are probably going to be made in secret, and then passed down to the rest of us.

While online disclosure and dialog don’t threaten to take away politicians’ power anytime soon, they do represent our best chance at elevating substance, rewarding merit, and reducing undue influence, whether in crafting legislation or in dealing with the struggles of divided government. Sunlight’s approach to government transparency has made us skeptical observers of these political negotiations, and as we find ourselves entering yet another cycle, we decided to ask:

What can we expect of the next month, and what should we do about it?

1. Staged Disclosure: If the policy debate isn’t going to happen somewhere with reasonable disclosure requirements, like the floor of the House or Senate, or in a committee, and if our politicians see an advantage to secrecy, then the disclosure we get is not going to be of the healthiest form. We aren’t going to learn what we need to understand the issues and their importance, but instead we’re going to be given self-congratulatory vignettes and staged disclosure. In an unfinished negotiation everything leaked or disclosed should be considered part of the negotiation itself — suspect and probably designed to affect one side’s leverage.

The motivation for secrecy is to craft a narrative that both sides will be able to sell to their bases. Add to that a media that loves the narrative of conflict and we’ll get a steady stream of “insider” updates about beer summits, ultimatums, and steady leadership that may or may not reflect what actually happens. There’s not much we can do about the self-serving disclosure that surrounds political negotiations, but updates about ongoing negotiations should be taken with a grain of salt. Recommendation: Skepticism toward all accounts of the negotiations, and especially those that valorize the negotiators.

2. Down Our Throats: Perhaps unfortunately, that colorful phrase has become a symbol for legislation that is negotiated in secret, and the forced through a democratic chamber without changes. We’re likely to see this phrase used a lot in the coming month, since the negotiations among party leaders don’t amount to much if the “bargain” or “package” gets re-negotiated through each caucus, conference, and chamber. One of the assumptions behind the Supercommittee was that Congress was a problem that needed to be bypassed, so the Supercommittee’s recommendations (had they existed) would have gone straight to a vote.

While it’s hard to tell what form a deal or bargain will take now, one thing we should demand is a bare minimum 72 hours for our representatives to see the final bill, publicly and online, before voting on it. That’s absolutely not too much to ask, since our representatives are being put in a somewhat impossible situation anyway — forced to choose between a deal that isn’t theirs and a fake disaster that was conjured to create political leverage. Recommendation: Post Final Bill(s) 72 Hours Online Before Consideration

3. A Secret Room, Full of Whom? Just because the negotiations are inaccessible to the public doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible to everyone, and as Lee covered extensively earlier today, there’s a whole industry whose purpose is to change what comes out of those talks. That industry also just helped fund an election, a fact not lost on our policymakers. As to what we’ll see over the next few months, on this score there isn’t much.  Until we have more reliable, real-time online lobbying disclosure, we’re going to be in the dark about who is lobbying and influencing these negotiations. Recommendation: Real-time, Online Lobbying Disclosure 

4. More of the Same: It wouldn’t be surprising if the negotiations end up creating yet another looming deadline for one or a number of the sticking points. If our politics has come to rely on self-imposed terrible things from which we can be subsequently saved, we shouldn’t be surprised when the solution ends up repeating the same problem. (It was Obama’s former, often beloved OMB director who suggested that we need processes that are less democratic if we want to succeed as a country.) Recommendation: Congress Shouldn’t Keep Creating Looming Deadlines that Justify Anti-Democratic Processes.

5. What Else Was Agreed To? When the deal is finalized, the public will probably still be left in the dark as to the actual terms of the deal. What did Reid and Boehner agree to do, or not do?  What gets a hearing or a floor vote, and what provisions are untouchable? It would be inappropriate for the negotiations between our country’s leaders over the people’s business to have secret terms.  If the terms of the agreement are secret (as they generally are), then on whose behalf have they been negotiated, and to what end? Recommendation: Demand the full terms of the deal, and label everything else a partial disclosure.

6. “I’m Not Even Supposed to be Here Today.” This process shouldn’t even be happening in the first place. Congress should pass laws without having to face impending doom to justify them. Politicians should find ways of defaulting to public interactions and conversations that empower public dialog (see number 11), rather than routing around it. Divided government doesn’t need to lead to a race-to-the-bottom hunt for leverage against political opponents. Obama found clout through authentic public dialog as his healthcare reform initiative flagged during his first administration, the same could happen again.

It may turn out that the best thing that could happen to create powerful norms for healthy public politics in the US is to have a series of terrible undemocratic secret negotiations that remind us that some parts of our democracy won’t happen automatically, but that we have to demand and invent them. Each round of these negotiations just makes the case for a new public political dialog a little easier to make. Recommendation: Refuse to cynically accept secret negotiations as the status quo for self-government.