Newspapers and television corporations and their litigation and lobbying organizations are the most vigorous proponents of openness of meetings unless, of course, it is the media’s records or meetings that are at stake.– Johnson 1994 – Open Meetings and Closed Minds
Instances of outright corruption are rare. While they make good news stories when they do occur, the media’s fascination with scandal has done a disservice to political accountability.– Drutman 2015 – The Business of America is Lobbying
Since the 1970 LRA, legislators have converted the transparent amendment process into a kludgy and wasteful messaging system targeted at the press and constituents. Instead of pushing forward with new legislation or working out the details of other legislation, minority parties spend inordinate amount of time conspiring how to get the majority party on record for dangerous votes, and once they land on a good one, they call for that vote over and over to remind the often forgetful press and public.
Worse, the issue space for both the median and the public is tiny, as they focus on perceived scandals, government waste, etc. Thus legislators, once they find a hot button issue, continue to call for public votes on that issue over and over, knowing that the votes are not intended to change policy.
Transparency often exacerbates crises. The media – a major factor in transmitting information made available by transparency – may have an incentive to pay more attention to belligerent statements than more subtle, conciliatory signals.– Finel & Lord 1999 – The Surprising Logic of Transparency
As much as it is important to have transparency and media scrutiny, there are times when not having media, so people can open up, be more expressive and more honest with each other, really can make a difference.– Sen. Tom Daschle 2014 – The Dark Side of Sunlight
For everything that we hear about the short attention span of the public and the media cycle, the press tackles only a surprisingly small amount of issues over the year, and in turn they cover each of these with remarkably little depth. Recently things like taxation, immigration and health care. Members write amendments to excite the press. Messaging Lee. THE DECLINE OF INSTITUTIONAL CAPACITY - Despite their almost abject disinterest in government information, the media aren’t innocent bystanders when it comes to congressional abuses based on transparency. Indeed, increased transparency not only leads to the public being manipulated by the calling for more recorded votes, it also spurs on congressional actions that are detrimental to the functioning of government.
One Interstate staff member said the open mark-up sessions slowed the committee’s work when it was dealing with controversial legislation, because members became “more vocal” for the benefit of lobbyists – and for reporters who might quote them in the next day's papers. Lobbyists had been known to hand members notes with suggested amendments, he said, and “sometimes you even had applause and the chair had to bang for order.” Some members thought the openness concept could be carried too far. Staggers said members were sometimes pressured into voting for open sessions against their consciences for fear of being accused of underhandedness. “What I resent more than anything else,” said AI Ullman (D Ore.), “is people wrongly accusing members of bad motives when they vote to close one or two sessions for legitimate reasons…. They should get more sophisticated about that.” – CQ Quarterly 1973 – Senate and House Open Up their Sessions
The picture of Congress conveyed in the media is scarcely … flattering. Journalistic hit-and-run specialists… perpetuate a cartoonish stereotype: an irresponsible and somewhat sleazy gang resembling Woodrow Wilson’s caustic description of the House as “a disintegrating mass of jarring elements.”– Davidson, Oleszek & Lee 2012 – Congress & Its Members
As discussed below, there is little or no evidence that “gotcha journalism” — even if one thinks it is valuable — is dependent upon open meetings for its existence. The dusty back roads of investigative journalism almost always lead elsewhere.– Johnson 1994 – Open Meetings and Closed Minds
If a guy was reading a newspaper, they’d always show a close-up of him. If a delegate was picking his nose or scratching his ass, that’s what you'd see. If somebody had a bald head, you could be sure of getting a close-up view of the shiny spot. No wonder so many of us were skittish. After all, why should the greatest legislative body in the world allow itself to be demeaned and humiliated before millions of people?– Speaker Tip O’Neill 1987 – Congress and the People
While most of the [increases in transparency] Congress made during this period were not in response to any great ourpouring of public sentiment – more than one observer has noted that “congressional reform has no constituency” - they did have the support of various interest groups as well as of editorial writers and columnists.– Wolfensburger 2000 – Dawning of the Sunshine Seventies
The idea of making antisecrecy refonns the centerpiece of the bipartisan package was the brainchild of DSG staff director Richard P. Conlon, a former newspaper reporter who sensed that the antisecrecy theme would appeal to journalists. It did. The subsequent full-court lobbying campaign attracted the support of the AFL-CIO, National Education Association, Americans for Democratic Action, the National Committee for an Effective Congress, the National Fanners Union, and the Anti-Defamation League. And it generated dozens of editorials around the country, many of which were later inserted in the Congressional Record. As two political scientists would later observe: Probably not since the revolt against Speaker Cannon in 1910 had the nation’s press taken such an interest in congressional procedures. Whether or not the general public evinced any deep interest in the question is doubtful.– Wolfensburger 2000 – Dawning of the Sunshine Seventies
Parties may stage failed roll-call votes on the same issues over and over. Holding votes on multiple occasions elevates an issue in the news repeatedly...“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, House Republicans are indeed certifiable...But in an arena that rewards repetitive messaging, the laws of sanity don't hold.” – Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities
A series of three meetings was called to acquaint lobbyists with the reform bill and the proposed floor amendments. The theory was that many lobby groups would profit from open sessions and votes. Not all the groups were interested, but a few were...Even more successful was the coalition’s appeal to journalists. Since the press hates secrecy in all forms, this proved to be a highly productive technique. – Bibby & Davidson 1970 – On Capitol Hill
National representatives assume a negativity bias of the journalists and the public at large (Kahneman and Tversky 1984); they expect that the journalists and the public in their home country will perceive negative votes or abstentions as evidence of failure in the negotiation process and for this reason will pay more attention to these votes than to the absence of opposition. National representatives also want to avoid the possibility that their political opponents will use their negative vote against them. A representative of a member state X explained that such votes trigger media attention while journalists usually overlook measures adopted without opposition: When we are isolated, we prefer not to express our opposition because the journalists in X would make big titles with it – “X voted against in the Council” – without reporting that on twenty points, X got what it wanted, focussing only on the negative vote. (October 2007) – Novak 2015 – Secrecy and Publicity
A large share of legislative party resources is now dedicated to increasingly elaborate efforts to drive partisan messages in the news media. The older members were “aghast” at the idea that they would participate in political guerilla warfare. Rep. Bentsen (D-TX) said, ‘This is folly. We are going to destroy our economy and country over politics?’– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities
Mayhew argued that members of Congress seek to promote their own personal reelection by constantly engaging in expensive advertising to establish credit and underline their positions. Before the 1970s this required a lot of expended energy and money as members would make speeches, attend events, shake hands, and try and gain favor with the press. But with the advent of the sunshine laws in the early 1970s, members were given a much louder forum. Transparent votes and open committees allow members to manipulate the press, giving members increased publicity with a greater degree of perceived legitimacy, all at no charge.
The media in turn latches on to conflict, perceived corruption, scandal, or anything it can turn into click bait, for increased viewership. And the members know this, so the members work exceedingly hard to bring issues to a public vote that will not just make them look good, but also make their opponent look bad. And if the press bites, the members wash and repeat, running the same issue back up for a vote time and again, knowing that the press scours the congressional record specifically for these types of conflict votes.
This chicanery accomplishes a number of things. It helps members gain publicity, disparage their competitors, and provide cover for a number of less salient issues. But it comes at a hefty price. Thousands of votes a year, hundreds upon hundreds of legislative hours are devoted to this game that is not intended to pass legislation or improve policy – it is merely designed to send ‘message votes’ out to the press, who then run article after article on these divisive yet wasteful votes.
The Bonding Costs Created By Media Attacks
Monitoring and Bonding Costs
In their seminal piece on the topic, Professors Michael Jensen and William Meckling categorize agency costs into three types: monitoring costs, costs, and residual losses. Monitoring costs are the costs to the principal of policing the agent’s conduct to ensure that the agent in the principal’s interest. Bonding costs are those costs expended the agent to prove to the principal that the agent is acting appropriately. Residual losses are the costs inherent to the principal-agent relationship because of the inevitable divergence of interests between principal and the agent.– Epps 2008 – Harvard Law Review
But it is a game with no winners, because both parties participate in this pernicious process with equal fervor, spendding more time trying to take eachother out than building coalitions or passing good legislation.
For example, there is a big problem with Congress’s decreased capacity. But no member dare step up and ask for more funding, because the other party, will highlight these votes to a hungry press in a way that makes it sound like the legislator is greedy, corrupt and wasteful. As a result, the increased transparency has members sleeping in their staff offices and avoiding any vote on improving their ability to govern.
The news media is sells conflict and partisanship. As such they are not an unbiased consumer of legislative transparency. There is little value in a story about the passage of hard to understand legislation.
As Frances Lee notes in her writing, the public is especially concerned about ideas of good governance and potential graft and wastefulness. So as the public might not care about the specifics of GMO testing, trade negotiations, war or education, they get very excited by ideas of a perceived laziness (a member not voting on every bill) or perceived self serving (a member voting on salary or staff that might make their lives easier). And this fear that members have as a result can have dire implications on the institutional capacity of Congress (something you have recently written about).
As you know there have been an increasing number of members that sleep in their office. It has attained a certain cachet and substantial press. By sleeping in their office the members can message to the constituents through the press by saying "I’m thrifty, I don’t use a lot of money. I don’t believe that us members should use tax payer dollars to spoil ourselves." In a way, sleeping in one’s office has received enough public attention that the choice of doing so could be perceived as a transparent vote on government spending. And therefore sleeping in the office has become a strong signal about ideas of ‘good governance.’
The televising of the House and other transparency reforms of the 1970s were also very useful to a minority party seeking to force its issues into public view.– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities
The same appears be true in the case of voting for increased institutional capacity or even increased member salaries. Under secrecy, decisions to increase congressional spending would certainly piss off the public, but the individual legislator could avoid direct responsibility for doing son. Once these votes and decisions are made transparent, they are made personal. And as these issues are “good governance” issues, they are (as Frances Lee suggests) some of the most important votes a member makes. Indeed, Frances Lee writes about the importance of this extensively in her book, saying “[members] strategically deploy 'good government' causes to enhance their own party's reputation and to undercut their opposition’s…[and] congressional partisans exploit these issues to maximize their identification with positive values and their opponents with negative ones.”
So this means to me that voting for increased institutional capacity, higher salaries for staffers, better information systems etc, has become a very sensitive vote in his era of transparency, and so members on both sides of the fence, stay clear from spending any money on themselves.
This, of course, isn’t the only way that a direct accountability to the public might derail the effectiveness of a legislature (JFK despised transparency for these reasons as well), but since it is something you recently wrote about, I figured it worth a mention.