Oct 24, 2011
Ever wonder why baseball players started holding their gloves in front of their mouths during a game? It’s to preserve the secrecy of that holy baseball ritual, the conference at the mound. It’s not clear anyone has ever successfully used lip-reading as a tactic, or that the players are saying anything interesting. But it has made fans even more curious: just what are they planning?
Something similar is going on with the budget “supercommittee.” While it has held public hearings, and has taken an estimated 180,000 suggestions from lobbyists, advocacy groups and members of the public, the panel itself has been meeting behind closed doors. The secrecy in itself has become an issue. Some, like John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation, warn that no one can be held accountable for policies that come out of a “black box” process. On the other hand, Jordan Tama in the New York Times says secrecy is the only way legislators can hammer out a bipartisan deal. If the process were public, he argues, all the public would see is posturing.
Despite the debate, this has been Washington’s go-to strategy all year for dealing with the government’s budget problems: setting a deadline and the threat of horrible consequences to force action, and then locking key players into intensive closed-door negotiations to get a deal. That’s how Washington dealt with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the threatened government shutdown in April, and the debt ceiling debate in August. If the supercommittee can’t come up with a plan, or Congress fails to pass it, automatic “triggers” will do the cutting in December, to the tune of $1.2 trillion.
One of the best arguments against this approach, of course, is what it has produced on all those other occasions: deals that so far haven’t shifted the federal government onto a sustainable fiscal path and a series of needless crises that have traumatized the public. Congress’ 84 percent disapproval rating isn’t an accident. A full year of crisis upon crisis has taken its toll on public trust.
And while we’re on the subject, what about the public? It may well be true, as Tama points out, that an open process would lead to more posturing and gridlock. As long as we define the goal as coming up with something Congress will pass, that strategy makes sense.
But getting a deal in Congress isn’t the end of the story. Yes, Congress has to agree on a plan. But the broader public has to agree to it as well.
Any plan that puts the nation on a sensible fiscal course is going to unfold over a period of years, and it won’t last unless the public buys into the values and tradeoffs needed to achieve that goal. The American people are important players here. They’re going to pay the higher taxes or live with the budget cuts resulting from a deal, and they need to believe that any fiscal plan reflects their values and priorities. If they don’t like it, they won’t re-elect the politicians who support it, and they won’t stay the course.
In a word, the public needs to buy in. They need to be engaged in making the choices, not just watching from the stands.
Even if secrecy is the best strategy right now, so far there’s no indication the supercommittee (or anybody else) is thinking about really engaging the public at all. The supercommittee is a classic “inside baseball” strategy, and it may work with Congress. But unlike baseball, eventually the people in the stands are going to have a say. And that’s where the inside baseball approach falls down.
Maybe the supercommittee meetings are more like the conference at the mound in Bull Durham. But we may never know.
Scott Bittle is a senior fellow at Public Agenda, a partner in Choosing Our Fiscal Future. With his colleague Jean Johnson, he’s co-author of “Where Does the Money Go: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis” and “Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis.”