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Too much transparency

A closed-door meeting reveals how public access has weakened politics

justin renteria for the boston globe/justin renteria for the boston g

Lovemaking and politics are perhaps best done behind closed doors. The former may be obvious, the latter far less so. Indeed, the trend has been to ever-greater openness in government, a trend that arguably improves public access but also comes at some significant cost. Under the spotlight, politicians increasingly play for the camera, hardening their positions and becoming less willing to compromise. And proof of that was on display (or not, as it turns out) last week when the US Senate met in a rare, secretive session for what turned out to be something akin to group therapy. The result may just herald a new day in the nation’s politics.

At issue was a process that is arcane: confirmation of presidential appointees. The president proposes and the Senate confirms — that’s the rule from the Constitution — and that power used to be exercised modestly. Not lately, however. Republican senators have taken to opposing nominees for reasons unrelated to their basic qualifications, largely, it seems, to torment and undercut the president.

Complicating things were the Senate’s rules themselves. Every senator is special (just like the Barney the Dinosaur song!) and so each is uniquely powerful. If any one senator doesn’t like something, he or she can object and there it sits, immovable, unless a supermajority — 60 senators — votes otherwise. With 45 Republican senators, that supermajority is hard to muster, and so President Obama has been watching, frustrated, as nominee after nominee has been held up. The logjam had reached a breaking point.


But the funny thing about the Senate supermajority rule is that it is merely a rule, and rules are created by a majority. So at any point 51 senators can eliminate the supermajority requirement and that’s what Democrats were now threatening to do. Billed as the “nuclear” option, the change would have upended over 200 years of tradition and deference to the minority party. Republicans were up in arms, promising their own payback when they someday secured majority status. The body truly was in a crisis.

So last Monday night, 98 out of 100 members met in the historic Old Senate Chamber (no longer used by the Senate, it’s now largely a museum) and hashed things out for three hours. The media weren’t invited, which was the point, and by the evening’s end, as press reports afterwards made clear, there had been a kind of catharsis. The meeting “enabled people to understand the difference in viewpoints,” said Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “an important moment for the Senate.”


“We have a new start for this body,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Monday night was a magical night,” added West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin.

And it was magical, in large part, because people listened to each other. “Whenever we come to the floor normally we are speaking to a void, we are speaking to a camera, we are speaking to our constituents but there’s no one there to listen to us among our colleagues,” Merkley told reporters. It’s a telling observation. Freedom of information and open meeting laws had their genesis in the 1960s. Such “sunshine” acts were supposed to improve government by making the process visible to all. But too much sun can hurt also. As our politics has become ever more public, it is no coincidence that it has also become ever more mean-spirited.

We elect politicians, at whatever level of government, as our representatives. They are then supposed to meet and work to fashion policy and law. Doing so inevitably requires connecting together at a personal level so that one can understand and compromise. But when every word is recorded and where every sign of weakness or deviancy from orthodoxy is later used as a weapon, that doesn’t happen. What we get instead is point-scoring and harsh words.

After their private meeting, both parties came to an agreement. Democrats backed off on their threatened rule change. The GOP promised to let seven long-stalled nominations move forward. For the moment, at least, there’s a newfound sense of comity. A little less transparency and a little more sitting down to talk might do the Senate — and the country — a lot of good.


Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com