To say that our congressional leaders act like bickering spouses is a slur—bickering spouses deserve more respect—but for years, there has seemed no way to stop the bickering. Now a report claims that our legislative leaders would get a lot more accomplished if they were willing to try a few old-school practices: more closed-door meetings, long incumbencies to promote prolonged interaction among members, and logrolling, or quid pro quo, on public projects.
Cathie Jo Martin knows that good-government types frown on all three ideas, but she says the widely denigrated stratagems can be compatible with democratic values. The College of Arts & Sciences political science professor cowrote and coedited the book-length report Negotiating Agreement in Politics for the American Political Science Association (APSA). (It may be published as a book, Martin says.) Put together with faculty in various disciplines from multiple universities, the report roams the globe and through history to define the best practices of negotiation.
The report stemmed from the APSA’s annual exercise identifying a “burning issue” and probing it with a task force, says Martin, who acknowledges that the recommendations are unlikely to be adopted.
“At the moment, this kind of political negotiation is a tall order,” she says. But as well as the task force identifying practices that allow some groups and countries to run more effectively (the report looks at other democracies in addition to ours), she says, the best teacher of all—experience—suggests the value of the report’s recommendations.
Recent bipartisan efforts, often dubbed “gangs” of legislators, have involved repeated contact between members who meet privately and horse-trade, she says. In particular, the recent budget agreement, negotiated by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), “certainly was a step in the right direction.”
Even those supportive of compromise, however, might have issues with the task force’s three strategies. Secret congressional committee meetings, for example, were opened to the public by the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act during the post-Watergate spasm of clean-government activism. But the report notes that research later found most senators fingering open meetings as the biggest impediment to negotiation—and that was back in 1982. More recent studies found, for example, that European Union negotiators compromise on controversial position papers more readily in private negotiations.
The report concludes, “By now, the empirical evidence on the deliberative benefits of closed-door interactions seems incontrovertible.”
“We absolutely think you have to balance privacy with transparency” in a democracy, Martin says. The report recommends that the public debate the reasons for closed-door meetings and that congressional representatives must be transparent about the rationale for congressional decisions, as opposed to transparency about the process.
Members of Congress swapping support for one another’s projects to facilitate deals also rubs against the good-government grain, as the report admits when it invokes the negative connotations of logrolling (the report’s authors use the term “side payments.”) Still, the report insists, “Every textbook on negotiation recommends expanding the issue area in negotiation to include side payments of various supports.” Such payments should be transparent, essential to the deal, and fair, the authors stress.
By contrast, the notion that to better work together members of Congress should interact often and get to know one another seems a no-brainer. But it implies long-serving representatives, and some see that as a failure of democracy, since it often results from uncontested or lopsided elections, the report says. (Some critics endorse congressional term limits.) The report counters that a long incumbency may reflect constituents’ happiness with their representative’s service.
Some analysts suspect that discomfort with America’s first black president may explain Republican congressional hostility toward working with the Obama administration. “I think racism is alive and well in America, but I don’t really think that this is a big racial thing,” Martin demurs. “I think that this has a lot more to do with the Republicans’ own policy agenda and desire to win back the presidency.”
Martin, who earned a doctorate in 1987, has seen fads for improving politics come and go. In the 1970s, she recalls, “we had a love affair” with parliamentary and similar systems. Yet Britain’s recent experience should temper that ardor, she says, as Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity-minded government reversed previous fondness for public investment, producing “huge policy flip-flops”—and not for the first time in British history.
Her task force report challenges some cherished assumptions about how our democracy should work, as well as those who support intransigent noncompromise, even to the point of a government shutdown. Martin says task force members briefed intrigued congressional representatives on the report before Christmas. Is she optimistic that lawmakers will get their act together soon?
“I’m not real hopeful,” she says. “But I’m an academic. We’re not supposed to be hopeful.”