It's counterintuitive, but the federal government may be drowning in transparency

The various investigations into every aspect of the lives and activities of politicians, while generally promoting more accountability among elected officials, has left me with an unsettled feeling in recent years. It’s hard to quantify because arguing against transparency in government is generally viewed as arguing in favor of corruption. It’s a compelling charge, given that human beings (particularly those who seek out high office) tend to fall into temptation when they think nobody is watching. But can we go too far in the drive for transparency?

Earlier this week, Mitch Daniels published an op-ed at the Washington Post where he dared to ask these forbidden questions. He starts off by acknowledging precisely what I just said about how difficult even bringing the subject up is. But the author does a good job of pointing out other aspects of government where sensible reforms have been taken too far. Here’s one sample. (All emphasis added by me)

We’ve seen the unintended consequences of overzealous reform before. Badly needed civil service and procurement reforms initially worked, but they expanded over time until they paralyzed the federal government to a comical degree. Federal employees are in greater danger from a lightning strike than termination for lousy performance, and the procedures for buying, say, a new computer are so byzantine that the machines are outdated by the time they arrive.

It’s kind of hard to argue with that. But does transparency fall into the same basket as those examples? I think it can, at least in some cases. We went from a desire to make sure that all federal records and expenditures of taxpayer dollars were available to the public to demands to know the contents of every email and text message they send, every person they talk to and the subject of every conversation. In some criminal cases, those sorts of records may indeed be important. (Peter Strzok and his girlfriend come to mind.)

But most of the time, as Daniels points out, we’re talking about conversations and brainstorming sessions, not public records. And rarely are such documents used solely in a benign fashion to inform the public. They are inevitably weaponized for political use if there’s anything even remotely juicy in them.

Daniels explains better than I could how this winds up poisoning the well and preventing people from getting anything done when they might otherwise have found a path forward.

Overall capability in government suffers, too. The excessive background checks and disclosure demands of today’s federal employment discourage countless talented people from serving. I watched the number and quality of aspirants to Indiana state judgeships decline over the years. Like many other states, Indiana requires the immediate public identification of interested judicial candidates, and far too many outstanding lawyers, worried about angering their law firms, clients or employers, stay on the sidelines.

Maybe the worst net negative effect of the openness obsession is on the spirit of compromise — a spirit that is prized, ironically, by many transparency advocates. There is a reason the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was held privately and no official minutes were kept. Men who argued fiercely against certain provisions preserved their ability to accept second-best outcomes, and to go home and advocate ratification of the overall agreement.

I think a part of the problem Daniels is addressing but not explicitly mentioning is the way that politics – always a spirited, competitive undertaking in Americaa – has slowly morphed further and further into total warfare. People are afraid to have conversations with “the other side” because anything they say which even hints at a possible compromise is immediately leaked to the press and used against them in the next primary. There used to be room for private conversations – even written ones – without each sylable having to go public. But when you see everything as a war, you see every item on the field as a potential weapon.

What can be done about it? Good question. Any suggestion of rules which could be viewed as “less transparency” will be met with howls of fury from the press and much of the public. Daniels offers something vague, proposing “broadening the definitions of what communications should remain confidential and to grant more leeway for the kinds of meetings that are often essential to producing workable compromises.”

Is even that much possible? The flame wars about to start in the comments section will likely give us our answer.

Jazz Shaw Jul 03, 2022 10:01 AM ET