The Fiscal Cliff Process was an Atrocious, Secretive Mess


As we expected, the culmination of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations was a rush to the finish line, in which policies decided by a few men in a room were passed through the Congress without amendment. The last few days of congressional deliberations were so bad they make the supercommittee look participatory, or, as Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch observed, they make “the passage of Obamacare seem like the apex of republican democracy.”

Some observations on the mess:

The Unread Bill: Despite Boehner’s many promises to the contrary, the bill was not online for 72 hours. This isn’t a surprise, since the House wasn’t really a party to the final negotiations, and relegated itself to the binary position of pass or veto usually reserved for the President. The House voted blind, with about 12 hours of access to the bill, starting New Year’s morning, before floor debate. The only bright spot here is that the House Rules Committee helpfully posted the bill as soon as they had it. Of course, that’s nowhere near adequate time to process a bill, so stories of the ridiculous corporate tax subsidies in the bill only came out as the floor debate started.

This is a side effect of not legislating. If Congress legislates, then they’ll have access to legislation. If they try to maximize imaginary leverage through crisis brinksmanship, then their role gets diminished to the point that they’re voting on things they haven’t read.

Someone Had Access: While Congress (and the rest of us) only just found out what was in the bill, a coterie of corporate lobbyists managed to get their profit-boosting tax expenditures included. It’s hard to imagine how NASCAR and Hollywood had stronger negotiating positions than the House of Representatives, but in the end, they did.

Faith, Lost: One fake disclosure and staged leak after another punctuated the entirety of the negotiations, from CPI to brave phone calls to congressional curse words. In the absence of substantive proposals, the public was cast into the world of fake narratives and reassurances. Our party leaders provided no check whatsoever against manipulative PR negotiating tactics.

What Deal: We cautioned in November that we are unlikely to know the outlines of the entire deal, since concessions could be made outside the context of legislation. (This is not a hypothetical concern).  This seems less likely to have happened in yesterday’s deal — the process was so convoluted that secret deal terms would probably have been impossible to agree to. The fact remains, though, that when the negotiating table is utterly unseen, we can’t know what’s put on it in our names.

Groundhog Day: We’ll be at it again in a few months, and it’s likely to get worse.  Each iteration of these negotiations has produced less public information — heightening fearmongering, and uncertainty, while further empowering those with privileged access.  It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.  Our recommendation still stands — Refuse to cynically accept secret negotiations as the status quo for self-government.