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Could More Backroom Deal-Making Save Congress?

BU political scientist heads task force with controversial ideas

Boston University BU, College of Arts and Sciences CAS, political science, professor Cathie Jo Martin, congressional gridlock negotiation

CAS political scientist Cathie Jo Martin says closed-door meetings are one possible fix for congressional gridlock. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

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.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Could More Backroom Deal-Making Save Congress?

  • Solution: more of the same on 02.26.2014 at 5:35 am

    “Her task force report challenges some cherished assumptions about how our democracy should work”

    Where in the constitution does it mention the word democracy? It does mention the republican form of government we are assured but sit ays noting about democracy. In fact, mentioning the word democracy in the course of conversation about our republic makes a mockery of the constitution and the real intentions of the founders. The multiple levels of government were in fact put in place as checks and balances to to create log jams not usurp them.

    “Long incumbencies to promote prolonged interaction among members”.

    Longer incumbencies? Ha, has she never read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense? On the contrary perhaps if these career politicians had term limits to face that ultimately forced them to live under the rules they create for the rest of us they would have more of an incentive to viable constitutional solutions to the problems facings our republic today.

  • Cathie Jo Martin on 02.26.2014 at 10:13 am

    With all due respect to Mr. Barlow, I had a pretty different view of what our Task Force said. Logrolling, smoke-filled rooms and quid-pro-quo exchanges are definitely not our idea of a functional deliberative Congress. Rather, we wonder why some countries – with just as many checks and balances as we have – do a much better job at locating pragmatic solutions to pressing policy problems through political negotiation, using the very norms of cooperation that we Americans teach to our children and often practice in our communities. Why are we paralyzed by extreme deadlock when they managed to engage in genuine negotiation (what we call “deliberative negotiation” not old-time log-rolling!) and a politics of cooperation?

    We think that governments elsewhere have adopted four procedural rules that, when combined together, often make for much more functional and democratic government. All of these rules have been shown to improve the chances for negotiated outcomes in private negotiations and we think that they matter to national institutions as well. First, these countries set up nonpartisan task forces with representatives from all parts of the society to think about policy problems, long before these problems ever are considered by legislators. These task forces – such as a Swedish Royal Commission to consider environmental problems – help different political parties and interest groups to build a common understanding of a problem. The task forces produce policy knowledge that is very different from the way policy knowledge is produced in the US. Here think tanks are often funded by deep pockets and create dueling narratives about problems – climate change is the obvious example. These nonpartisan tasks forces also produce a mandate for action and legislators have a harder time capturing the issue for their own electoral needs.

    Second, these countries have arrangements in which legislators and interest groups from different sides meet repeatedly to consider problems. Party leaders in coalition governments meat repeatedly to hammer out policy deals or even to form a government; similarly, business and labor representatives meet repeatedly over months and years to consider labor market policies. If you know that you are going to have to confront the other side again and again, you can’t get away with lying or other devious behavior. We used to have these repeated interactions in Congress when Congressional hearings were true deliberative bodies. But now important decisions are made in the party caucuses.

    Third, these countries impose consequences for non-action, or what we call “penalty defaults.” If parties in a coalition government can’t produce legislation, they get voted out of power. If business and labor groups can’t negotiate a deal on part-time work, the government takes over. “With great power comes great responsibility” (citing Spiderman’s uncle), and these countries have ways of lowering the boom on politicians that just want to hold up progress because they see it as a golden opportunity to build a bridge to nowhere.

    Finally, we come to privacy, an issue that we discuss extensively in the task force because we also have deep concerns about returning to smoke-filled rooms. People need a chance to talk to one another in an open way, and the media circus gets in the way of this. Congressional hearings, for example, used to be places in which folks from both sides of the aisle could engage in free-ranging dialogue about how to accomplish a range of concerns. This can be a simple quid-pro-quo exchange, but it can also be a moment for thinking outside of the box. Having the space to think – instead of to posture before the cameras – is necessary to political negotiation. Therefore, the task force thinks a lot (discussing the many pros and cons) about how to provide some space for private negotiations while maintaining democratic legitimacy. We offer lots of examples of how countries and the EU pull of this magic trick.

    We argue that adopting these rules encourages a kind of deliberative negotiation, in which participants search for fair compromises and often recognize win-win deals that are often swamped by zero-sum conflicts and a priority on politics over substance. Of course, this only works in areas where there is some common ground and participants have a genuine desire to achieve a deal. Today in Congress, a minority of legislators are committed to blocking action. They don’t want to make political deals and they don’t want to do the job that they were sent to Congress to do. We pride ourselves on our community spirit, civic engagement and dynamic society, but politics today is dominated by intense party polarization and little common ground among our political leaders. This is why I’m pessimistic about the current state of affairs. But America is one of the most economically and socially vibrant countries in the world and there is no darn reason why we should have to put up with such a ineffective political system.

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