Could Our Government Get More Done If It Were Less Transparent?

Backroom deals have been shaping U.S. policy since the Founding Fathers.
Posted at 6:52 PM, Oct 01, 2018

Door closed. Politicians huddled around a table negotiating. Out of sight. Away from reporters and constituents. That's a backroom deal. 

Of course there must be something underhanded going on. Something voters wouldn't like if they knew about it. 

Or would they? It raises a couple of questions: Is transparency in government always a good thing? Is a hidden handshake always bad?

Consider this: The deal that made Washington, D.C., the nation's capital was sealed behind closed doors in 1790. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton got together over dinner and worked it out. 

Virginians got a capital on the Potomac River, and Hamilton got the federal government to assume state debts. The rest is a mystery. 

Aaron Burr sure would have wanted to know how it had gone down; he was an advocate for making "elections, financial services, and even the U.S. Senate more fair and transparent," according to The Washington Post. In the musical "Hamilton," he's remembered in a similar way: "No one really knows / how the game is played / The art of the trade / How the sausage gets made / No one else is in / The room where it happens."

Still, unless you really wanted the capital to be in Philadelphia or New York City, was it really all that bad? You could call it the original compromise. 

Backroom deals have been commonplace for centuries, even if they don't always create perfect policies. 

In order to push through Social Security, President Franklin Roosevelt cut a deal with Southern Democrats to exclude farmworkers and maids. He gave the country a safety net, but blocked two-thirds of black workers in the South from receiving Social Security benefits.

LBJ worked with the hospital industry to make Medicare a reality. 

Neither president negotiated in the bright light of public scrutiny. Today, both programs enjoy considerable public approval and support.

The civil rights laws of the 1960s were the product of closed-door bipartisan negotiations. Same with Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill. They got together in 1983 and worked out a Social Security deal. The retirement age was raised, which Republicans liked, and Social Security benefits were taxed, which Democrats liked. 

More recently, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan cut a budget deal in 2013 between themselves. Polls since the 1940s have shown repeatedly that Americans think government should be transparent, and that the more transparency, the better.

The complicating factor, however, seems to be politics. The more people know, the less room to wiggle. More than half of Americans tell Gallup they want to see more compromise. That's hard to pull off when you're preening for the public every minute. 

So how about those backrooms? Is the best place for progress smoke-filled or sunlit?