Citations on
Weaponized Trans­parency

Below are a collection of citations concerning a problem we call ‘weaponized transparency.’ Simply put, weaponized transparency is a form of legislative antagonism brought about by any form of increased legislative transparency. This is because public exposure turns the amending process into proving grounds for ideological purity and allows for opposing legislators to score points by proposing idealistic and partisan amendments. Thus, weaponized transparency wreaks havoc on policy and drives chaos into the legislative process.

By Nsubuga, Ranalli & D’Angelo – Upcoming paper May 2018

By January 1973 the House had substantially revamped floor voting procedures. The most obvious result was an avalanche of floor amendments in early 1973.
– Smith 1989 – Call to Order

An Introduction to Weaponized Transparency

Just as few scholars are aware of the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act, even fewer are aware of its trecherous consquences. And the problem of weaponized transparency is an important oversight with respect to our understanding of the massive rise in partisanship and gridlock.

Still some scholars have done excellent work in this area. And the problem of weaponized transparency is first introduced by scholar Steven Smith in chapter 2 of his 1989 book Call to Order. In his work, Smith claims that massive, 1970s rise in the amending process (“an avalanche of floor amendments”) can be attributed directly to the legislative warfare created by the transparency of roll call voting and the introduction of the electronic voting boards. And he suggests, this change has driven partisanship, chaos and enmity. Further, he suggests that the open voting of the early 1970s led, as well, to the equally pernicious increase in the use of closed and special rules.

Below, we collect the citations of others who have also noticed this problem. However, no scholar gives this problem as much attention as Frances Lee in her 2016 book Insecure Majorities. Indeed, the entire book appears dedicated to the partisan warfare initiated by the minority (opposing) party to the detriment of both parties and final legislation, and there are important citations and observations on almost every page. And while Lee refers to this weaponized transparency as ‘messaging,’ it is difficult not to notice the war-like behaviors that legislators engage in through the amending process.

Strangely, however, while a number of scholars (cited below) fully appreciate this pernicious gamesmanship and legislative warfare, they are seemingly unaware of Smith’s 1989 work and the clear correlation between these actions and transparency. Yet, the warfare cannot exist without the transparency. This is because, there would be little point in offering a weaponized/torpedo amendment if the resulting votes were not made public, as it would no longer be able to cause anyone any harm.

The Massive Rise of Roll Call Votes Since 1970

Citations on Weaponized Transparency


A huge percentage of time is spent on how to use the political process to create a vote that will embarrass the other side. You basically have people working to make each other look as bad and stupid as possible.
– Rep Eric Fingerhut – Kessler 1997 (Inside Congress)
Party leaders might also request roll-call votes to showcase an issue of concern to their voters or to embarrass opponents by forcing them to take an unpopular public stance on a vote.
– Carrubba, Gabel & Hug 2008 – Legislative Voting Behavior
Forcing (transparent/public) votes on divisive “hot-button” issues provides campaign ammunition to party colleagues and supporters back home.
– Oleszek 2015 – Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process
One additional property of the shift to electronic voting in the United States is worth noting. Minority-party members - those most likely to be dissatisfied with overall legislative outcomes - were inclined to push amendments that, when subject to recorded votes, would be politically uncomfortable for the governing majority.
– Carey 2009 – Legislative Voting and Accountability
In the current climate, party branding and messaging dominate congressional decisionmaking.
– Drutman 2017 – Congress Wasn’t Always This Awful
Roll-call votes provide an obvious means by which party leaders can monitor compliance with their voting instructions...Legislative parties may use roll-call votes specifically to discipline their members. Roll-call votes allow legislative party leaders to monitor their members’ behavior, which is essential for accurately doling out reward or punishment.
– Carrubba, Gabel & Hug 2008 – Legislative Voting Behavior
Parties in Congress routinely try to force recorded votes on issues that will cast their opposition in an unattractive light. When these votes work as intended, they elicit party conflict and foreground party differences. The quest for party differences cuts against bipartisan collaboration on legislative issues. An out party does not win a competitive edge by participating in, voting for, and thereby legitimating the in party's initiatives. Instead, an out party angling for partisan advantage will look for reasons to withhold support and oppose.
– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities

Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities

After 1971 it became relatively easy to demand a recorded vote on amendments... Such rules changes have complicated the lives of members and reinforced some of the more troubling aspects of the permanent campaign... Opposition researchers pore over members’ voting records in an attempt to find a vote contrary to – or a vote that can be (mis)construed as contrary to – the preferences of their constituents. Every vote a member casts must be considered a potential campaign issue. Indeed, some bills and amendments are offered only as a vehicle for forcing a vote that will provide a campaign issue.
– Ornstein & Mann 2000 – Permanent Campaign
And perhaps most important, the partisan character of amending activity changed suddenly with the advent of recorded electronic voting. With new voting procedures in the 1970s, [the minority party] could force [the majority party] to go on the record, often repeatedly, on divisive amendments. [The minority] actively sought ways to challenge committee products, raise ideologically charged issues, and force recorded votes...in order to compel [the majority] to take politically dangerous public positions. The effect, quite naturally, was to heighten the personal and partisan conflict on the floor.
– Smith 1989 – Call to Order
Limitation riders were used disproportionately by Republicans and Democratic conservatives who lacked votes in the committees. Riders on such highly controversial issues as abortion, school busing, schools, and job safety regulations forced members to cast recorded votes, often repeatedly, on politically sensitive matters.
– Smith 1989 – Call to Order
The most notable use of the floor (recorded votes), and House television, was the 1984 effort by a group of conservative Republicans, who had dubbed themselves the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) the previous year. In the face of restrictive special rules and a truncated congressional agenda, conservative Republicans sought ways to raise their own issues and exact a price from Democrats for placing obstacles in their path. Their effort had two components. The first was to pursue obstructionist parliamentary tactics at every turn, including repeated unanimous consent requests to take up controversial legislation and demands for recorded votes on normally routine procedural motions. They hoped to build a record of opposition to their causes among marginal House Democrats who might be vulnerable to charges of support for liberal leadership positions.
– Smith 1989 – Call to Order
The minority party often proposes amendments that, although virtually certain to be defeated, raise issues that the minority wishes to highlight or on which they want to force senators in the majority to go on record with a roll-call vote. Such votes can play very prominently on 30-second TV commercials during political campaigns.
– Arenberg & Dove 2012 – Defending the Filibuster
The recorded teller vote, he recognized, is in principle good for democracy, but even this has another side. ‘The amending process became a ‘gotcha’ process rather than a legislative process. It enabled all of these single-issue groups to get a roll call on everything and run a TV ad against you financed by special interests’
– Rep. Obey 2014 – Schudson (Rise of Right to Know)

Ranalli, King & D’Angelo 2016 – Weaponized Transparency (Harvard)

Bauman even entertained requests for recorded-vote amendments from Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents in order to compel Democrats to take politically dangerous public positions.
– Smith 1989 – Call to Order
Reid postponed the vote to buy time for building support. In the meantime, he was forced to allow Republicans to offer a series of amendments requiring Democrats to cast politically painful votes. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., for example, successfully demanded a vote on an amendment to eliminate automatic cost-of-living increases in congressional salaries. Senators of both parties knew these votes would figure in future ads against Democratic candidates. “This is all about developing campaign commercials,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. “Democrats effectively used the pay raise issue against several Republican candidates in past cycles,” noted a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman, “so I don’t think they should be at all surprised if this emerges as an issue in some of their own campaigns.”
– Davidson, Oleszek & Lee 2012 – Congress & Its Members
Amendments can be taken up and voted on after the fifty hours but without debate. This circumstance often leads to “vote-a-ramas” over several days, when senators may “cast back-to-back votes on a dizzying array of dozens of amendments,” often with the two Congresses in mind. As national policy makers, members of Congress may have to cast tough but responsible votes, which will “serve as valuable campaign fodder” for opponents in the next election.
– Davidson, Oleszek & Lee 2017 – Congress and Its Members
Rather than pass any of the other bills that would likely receive bipartisan support on the floor, the House leadership scheduled the one bill that divided the parties completely. The moral of the story is scheduling votes is often a partisan act. As Frances Lee illustrates, party leaders have several incentives to wage partisan war.
– Huder 2013 – How Congress Polarizes America
The one predictable result of televising the House and Senate floor is that it has produced an increase in nonlegislative speeches (one-minute and special order speeches) by members wishing to speak on subjects of their own choosing for home or national consumption. Not only have these speaking venues resulted in longer sessions each day, but they have been the source of coordinated political attacks on the other parcy’s policies as well as on individuals of the other party – especially those accused of ethical problems in the Congress and the administration. The partisan wars...deteriorated into bitter personal attacks.
– Wolfensberger 2000 – Congress and the People
In short, legislative process enables the parties to wage partisan wars, not just policy wars. This not only helps explain why the parties diverge more in eras where process empowers party leaders, it also explains the votes taken during the current stalemate on the debt ceiling and CR. It makes political sense even if it doesn’t make policy sense. Legislative process is arguably the backbone to today’s polarization.
– Huder 2013 – How Congress Polarizes America
As the party’s congressional leader, the Speaker has a responsibility to his partisan members. And it is important to note, not all legislative goals are policy goals. In many, if not most cases in the current Congress, votes taken on the floor are political. In other words, they are meant to distinguish the two parties rather than create good public policy. In other words, opportunities to make the opposition party look bad are just as likely to receive votes as those that create good policy.
– Huder 2013 – How Congress Polarizes America


As Figure 1 (above) reveals, an avalanche of recorded votes on amendments followed the adoption of electronic voting...It appears that the ease of voting electronically, perhaps combined with the possibility of putting oneself and others on the record, generated a sharpe increase in the number of amendments offered in the COW. Minority party [members] were responsible for a disproportionate share of the increase in amending activity, much of which was repetitve and deliberately designed to force [majority members] to cast embarrassing votes. Soon thereafter, [the majority] began to employ special rules in creative ways to restrict amendments.
– Roberts & Smith 2003 – Party Strategy in the US House
The composition of the roll-call record changed nearly instantly with recorded electronic voting. During the five pre-1971 Congresses, amendments constituted only 10.3 percent of all recorded votes on average. During the first five post-reform Congresses, amendments averaged 34.0 percent of all recorded votes. Over 90% of the amendment votes were cast in the COW...A legislator, faction, or party seeking to force the opposition to cast embarrassing votes may find amendments [with public voting] are a flexible tool for doing so.
– Roberts & Smith 2003 – Party Strategy in the US House
[With the increase in transparency] everyone in the House found that they were being exposed to unanticipated votes that could be politically dangerous...Long daily sessions extended by debates and votes on what sometimes seemed to be an endless eries of amendments, strained collegiaity and tested members’ tolerance of their colleagues’ floor behavior. Democrat John LaFalce argued that “without relief of some kind, we won’t be able to do the jobs for which we were elected and the ultimate result will be inefficient Members in an inefficient institution.”
– Bach & Smith 1988 – Managing Uncertainty in the House

D’Angelo 2017 – Weaponized Transparency (League of Women Voters)

Painfully often the legislation our politicians pass is designed less to solve problems than to protect the politicians from defeat in our neverending election campaigns. They are, in short, too frightened of us to govern. Americans often complain that their system is not sufficiently democratic. I will argue that, on the contrary, there is a sense in which the system is too democratic and ought to be made less so.
– King 1997 – Running Scared (Atlantic)
In some cases, members may request a roll call vote in an effort ot put a political opponent on the record. More often than not, this happens for measures that are politically unpopular for the opposition party. In making these requests (often requests from lobbyists), members are using the electronic voting system to potentially score political points or stop legislation they are opposed to...these measures are often designed to 'kill' the underlying piece of legislation if they are adopted.
– Straus 2012 – The Rise of Roll Call Votes
Since roll call votes were allowed in the Committee of the Whole, forcing a vote on a killer amendment can requre members to go on the record in support or opposition of a controversial matter. Regardless of whether members believe they are voting strategically, the vote can be analyzed out of context for political reasons and provide important campaign material. The adoption of electronic voting changed the strategy of voting in the House of Representatives.
– Straus 2012 – The Rise of Roll Call Votes
Members request roll call votes for any number of reasons. These include establishing visibility and forcing their political opponents (most often members of the opposing party) to vote on measures not popular among their supporters.
– Straus 2012 – The Rise of Roll Call Votes
Roll-call votes are typically not requested randomly by a disinterested party; they are selected by a purposive actor (such as a party leader) with a vested interest in what the vote will reveal about legislative behavior to a particular audience. Thus, we cannot be confident that we can infer behavior on the unobserved (non-roll-call) votes from the roll- call votes. This disjunct has negative implications for the use of roll- call votes to estimate legislators’ ideal points, the dimensionality of the policy space, and party influence on legislative voting.
– Carrubba, Gabel & Hug 2008 – Legislative Voting Behavior
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.
– Novak 2015 – Secrecy and Publicity
[Weaponized transparency] undercuts the prospects for legislative success because it is aimed at defining “us versus them” rather than finding common ground. “Messaging escalates the conflict. It makes it harder to legislate,” stated a longtime Senate leadership aide. “If we are trying to set up a message vote, we are not trying to find the common ground. Instead we often find something that’s easy for the Republicans to vote against… If you are trying to legislate, you wouldn’t take such a hard line.”
– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities

Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities

In order to clearly define “us versus them,” roll-call votes designed for [weaponized] purposes will force members to select between simplistic “either/or” alternatives. As such, messaging [weaponized transparency] does not entail an effort to wrestle with policy complexity or to identify inclusive “both/and” solutions. As a Senate leadership staffer put it, “With messaging, you’re setting up simple choices: pay equity, motherhood, and apple pie. Are you for it, or are you against it? Of course, you and I know that these issues are not so simple. But they’re designed for use in the thirty second ad.” Even though messaging may undermine the prospects for successful lawmaking, legislative achievements are not necessary for parties to advance their political goals of creating favorable contrasts with the opposition. “In some ways, the failure to get things done makes these issues as clear and sharp a distinction between the two parties as if they get through,” said Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux (Hollander 2014). In fact, for messaging purposes, failure often works better than success.
– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities
Senators may over several days “cast back-to-back votes on a dizzying array of dozens of amendments,” many designed to provide campaign ammunition (so-called gotcha amendments) for the next election.
– Oleszek 2015 – Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process
Some of these reforms – including open meetings, televising of hearings and floor proceedings, and the liberalization of floor procedure – would eventually afford significant new opportunities for the GOP minority to embarrass Democrats and to promote their own policy proposals (Farrell 2001, 626-38; Lawrence 2014; Roberts and Smith 2003; Zelizer 2004, 2007). But at the time these battles were being waged, the possibility that Republicans might gain partisan advantage from these reforms was simply not a pressing concern for Democrats, who felt secure in their majorities. “It was the furthest thing from Democrats’ minds that [the reforms] would help Republicans,” reflected one longtime former Democratic staffer. “At that point, the fighting in Congress was centered within the Democratic Party – that was the focus.” Republicans, for their part, were more alert to the possible advantages, and many strongly favored the sunshine reforms (Wolfensberger 2001, 86-128). “Open meetings, televised hearings – Republicans were for all these things,” observed a former Republican staffer who served through the 1970s. “They understood that transparency would help them… Many Democrats were out of step with their constituencies, and Republicans felt that anything they could do to raise the visibility would be helpful to the party.” One wonders whether Democrats would have been as interested in pursuing these institutional reforms had they anticipated how useful they would soon become to Republicans.
– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities
Leaders and members regularly set up roll-call (transparent) votes in full knowledge that these votes will have no effect on policy outcomes, but they nevertheless stage them for messaging purposes – that is, to define the differences between the parties in hopes of making their party look more attractive to voters or key constituencies than the opposition.
– Lee 2016 – Insecure Majorities