Democratic Senate contenders Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch aired their differences Monday night in a televised debate. But behind the scenes, it’s a lot tougher to find out what kinds of commitments the two have already made for their would-be Senate careers. Last week, Globe columnist Scot Lehigh hit many roadblocks when he tried to discover what Lynch and Markey were promising to various interest groups. Many groups that make endorsements ask candidates to fill out questionnaires. But groups often decline to release the answers, and in most cases even the questions — ostensibly out of respect for the candidates. Many candidates then decline to release their filled-out questionnaires — ostensibly out of respect for the groups whose endorsements they seek.
What’s not being respected is the public’s broader interest in transparency; most of the union interests that Lehigh contacted refused to say what candidates were promising them. Questionnaires can simply be a way of assessing a candidate’s general principles — and sometimes they’re a way of nudging candidates to commit to specific legal and regulatory changes that the group’s lobbyists will then press for behind the scenes. (The Globe editorial board doesn’t use questionnaires in assessing candidates.)
To their credit, the United Auto Workers and Service Employees International Union were willing to release the questionnaires Markey and Lynch completed. The contents were telling: Both candidates told the SEIU, for instance, that they would oppose any federal budget cuts that would cause any public- or private-sector layoffs — a pledge that, however well intended, could make a Senator Markey or Senator Lynch an obstacle to dealing realistically with a dire budget crisis in the future.
Democratic-leaning groups aren’t the only ones asking candidates to make commitments. Candidates should, as a matter of practice, release their answers to any questionnaires they sign — from industry lobbying groups and corporate PACs as well as from unions and issue-advocacy groups. One Republican Senate candidate, current state Representative Dan Winslow, has vowed to release the contents of any campaign questionnaire he completes. Other candidates of both parties should do the same.
Until that happens, the public should be on alert. When a candidate touts an endorsement from any interest group, voters should demand to know what that group is asking candidates to do. The greater public good has to take precedence over the contents of a special interest’s secret questionnaire.