The Supercommittee and Secrecy: A Good Thing?

With the Supercommittee back in the news (see here and here, for example) after weeks of secrecy, it seems a good time to ask the question of whether all this secrecy is good for policy making. After all, it seems antithetical to traditional notions of openness and transparency in government, things we often seek to encourage in other countries.

Political scientist Jordan Tama, however, makes the opposite argument. Writing in the NY Times last week, Tama argues that:

Greater openness by the panel, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, would actually be harmful to the public interest. Private meetings are essential to give the committee’s six Republicans and six Democrats the freedom to step away from party orthodoxies, conduct serious negotiations and search for common ground, rather than engage in political posturing….

History reveals the importance of extensive private talks for members of a bipartisan group to get to know one another and pursue compromises. Eleven of the 18 members of President Obama’s fiscal commission endorsed a $4 trillion deficit reduction package, but only after months of private deliberations. When the panel did hold public hearings, they resulted in partisan grandstanding about fiscal stimulus and health care reform.

Private deliberation can also help ensure legislative follow-up. In 1981, a crisis in Social Security financing prompted President Ronald Reagan to appoint a 15-member commission led by Alan Greenspan (then an economic consultant) and including seven members of Congress. The panel achieved a breakthrough at a three-day retreat in Alexandria, Va., during which commissioners agreed on the amount of revenue needed to keep Social Security solvent and began discussing proposals to meet the shortfall through benefit cuts and tax increases.

Later, a subgroup of five members negotiated the details with House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and the Reagan administration in numerous private meetings in lawmakers’ offices, at the home of the White House chief of staff, James A. Baker III, and at the presidential guesthouse. Congress enacted the resulting compromise in 1983…..

In an age when elected officials rarely deliberate across party lines, private discussions should be welcomed, rather than attacked. This is all the more true considering that the fundamental task before the committee is not to establish facts, but to find a political sweet spot. The committee’s success remains a long shot in our age of extreme ideological polarization, but its secrecy gives it a glimmer of hope.

The op-ed is based on research from Tama’s new Cambridge University Press Book, Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises. While you should of course all rush out and buy the book, for those who can’t wait until it arrives from Amazon, you can also see his recent piece in Presidential Studies Quarterly, The Power and Limitations of Commissions: The Iraq Study Group, Bush, Obama, and Congress.