Why trying to make government more accountable has backfired

The George W. Bush administration attempted to restore the traditional confidentiality of White House visitor lists. (Vice President Dick Cheney went even further, demanding that his office—not the Secret Service—keep custody of the list of all his visitors.) This attempt to restore the historical norm enraged Democrats and liberals. They accused the White House of holding “secret meetings” with energy executives. Administration foes sued to gain access to visitor logs. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to publish logs of all visitors to his White House. In office, he’s kept his word.

It hasn’t made any difference. Do you see any less lobbying in Washington? Do fewer lobbyists visit the White House? No and no. In fact, transparency is a useful tool for lobbyists—it enables them to keep better track of their competitors, and to demand equal access for themselves. The next most immediate beneficiaries of this particular policy are probably the coffee shops on Pennsylvania Avenue, where White House staffers are known to meet visitors so as to avoid generating a public record.

Reformers keep trying to eliminate backroom wheeling and dealing from American governance. What they end up doing instead is eliminating governance itself, not just in the White House but in Congress, too. Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson tells a story that illustrates how the system used to work. Immediately upon becoming president, Johnson worked to pass President Kennedy’s stalled tax cut. He did so by wooing the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Harry Byrd, a conservative Virginian gripped (in Caro’s words) by a “fixation on frugality.” Byrd demanded that Johnson produce a budget of less than $100 billion. Caro details how Johnson insisted that officials in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget drive the figure down, to $97.9 billion. Byrd was satisfied; the Kennedy economic program passed.

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