Brookings’ Faulty
Defense of Trans­parency

In November 2014, Gary D. Bass, Danielle Brian and Norman Eisen published a Brookings’ report titled ‘Why The Critics of Transparency are Wrong.’ Central to their argument is a fundamental and fatal mistake of history.

By D'Angelo – Draft November 2017


A number of commentators and academics have recently made the attention-grabbing assertion that excessive openness and transparency are one of the causes of our country’s governance woes.
– Bass, Brian & Eisen 2014

A Fundamental Mistake

In a 2014 Brookings report, authors Bass, Brian and Eisen (BBE) take on what they perceive to be a movement in political science that calls for less transparency and more closed door sessions. In a 2017 talk at Harvard, Eisen emphatically reaffirmed the alleged authenticity of this work. And the Brookings piece was offered up in the talk as it is more generally as one of the few scholarly works in support of transparency. The trouble is, the work is deeply and fatally flawed.

The paper received immediate applause as well as important pushback. Indeed, Sarah Binder, a celebrated professor of political science at George Washington University, published her pushback to BBE the following month, again through Brookings. In it, she took BBE to task on their notion that transparency improves negotiations. Binder defended her previous work (which was attacked by BBE) by claiming that that secrecy (as Madison and others have long suggested) limits partisanship and can improve negotiations. She writes "Our point is simply that transparency entails trade-offs, imposing direct costs on successful deal-making. This is especially true given today’s exceptionally polarized and competitive political parties and given the information environment in which lawmakers work. As we observed in our piece, greater public attention to Congress today combined with polarized parties increases the incentives of lawmakers to adhere to party messages."

Perhaps in the heat of the response, Binder does not notice the fundamental error of BBEs paper. The three authors are apparently unaware of one of the most important Acts/changes in congressional history. Bass is a professor of public policy at Georgetown, Brian has spent twenty years working on transparency initiatives and Eisen is a lawyer who has worked in the federal government, but not one of them seem to be aware of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (LRA). Signed into law by Richard Nixon on October 26th, 1970, the changes were adopted with the opening of the following Congress, on January 3rd 1971. The LRA did a number of things to restructure committees, but its most important changes had to do with increased transparency. Among other things, it mandated the opening of nearly all committees to the public and the publishing of the vast majority of congressional votes. In one day, the US Congress switched from being one of the most closed institutions in history to one of the most open.

Somehow, BBE overlooked this fundamental change. Because, central to BBE's argument is the graph below, where the three author's mistakenly cite the introduction of television cameras (and CSPAN) as the beginning of congressional transparency. Indeed, they claim that the pre-transparency period (red arrows) is from 1979-1984, and the post-transparency period is from 1987 onward. Their ignorance of the LRA causes them to mistake the beginnings of transparency by well over ten years.

Bass, Brian & Eisen’s Historical Mistake