Private Meetings And Back-Room Deals Can Pay Off

Read Jordan Tama's Piece, "In Defense Of The Back-Room Deal"

In a recent piece in The New York Times, Jordan Tama argues in defense of a back-room deal for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. He points to many examples throughout history when secrecy lead to success, and public forums resulted in more partisanship.

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NEAL CONAN, host: In November - it is November now, and the clock is ticking toward the deadline for the congressional supercommittee, the bipartisan group trying to find ways to reduce the budget deficit over the next 10 years by $1.5 trillion. The supercommittee holds most of its meetings behind closed doors, prompting some to denounce secret deliberations as undemocratic. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Jordan Tama defended the back-room deal. Call us with your arguments for transparency or for secrecy or privacy.

Give us an example, too, if you would. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You'll find a link to the op-ed there. Jordan Tama is an assistant professor of international relations at the American University and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.

JORDAN TAMA: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And one example you cite in your piece is the deal that led to the Social Security compromise back in 1983.

TAMA: That's right. That was a compromise. That was engineered by the Greenspan Commission chaired by Alan Greenspan. Before he was...

CONAN: Then a mere consultant...

TAMA: Right. Not quite as famous at that time but already famous for his economic expertise. And this was created in 1981 by the Reagan administration, at a time when Social Security is making - facing a major financing shortfall. And...

CONAN: What was the advantage of privacy, lack of transparency, if you will?

TAMA: Well, the advantage was that the key problem was for Republicans and Democrats to actually agree on a solution, and the challenge was not that dissimilar to the challenge we're facing now because the problem really came down to the balance between tax increases and benefit cuts. And Democrats, as now, favored tax increases more than benefit cuts and Republicans the opposite.

And the commission was very valuable because it took a subgroup of members of Congress as well as some prominent private citizens and enabled them to engage in very intensive private deliberations. And they reached some very important breakthroughs. First, they agreed on how much the shortfall actually was, which was something that Republicans and Democrats couldn't even agree on at first. And then they agreed, ultimately, on how to address the shortfall through a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases.

CONAN: It's interesting. Since you wrote your piece, there has been another public session, a rare public session of the congressional supercommittee. And Democrats came out during the public session and said, wait a minute, here's our proposal. Increase taxes by this amount and we'll cut that amount from Medicare.

TAMA: Right. And that's part of the bargaining process, I think. They're laying out a proposal that would include large tax increases, and it's very unlikely Republicans will agree to those. But the Democrats also want to show that they are making a serious offer and taking this process very seriously. And one thing that is at work here is that neither party wants to be blamed for a failure to reach agreement. So the Republicans, so far, have not made any public offers that would include significant tax increases. But it may not be out of the question that privately that's being discussed.

CONAN: So it might be, as it was during these so-called grand bargain discussions between the speaker of the House, John Boehner, and President Obama at one point. But those discussions became public and quickly evaporated.

TAMA: Right. Exactly. And that's really why privacy is so important, because the real issue here is that elected officials face intense political pressures. And when they speak publicly, whether it's at a public hearing or in any other public setting, it's very hard for them to move away from their party orthodoxy. And so it's impossible for Republicans in public to say that they're for tax increases and for Democrats to talk about cutting entitlement programs, generally.

And so that's really why it's essential that this committee actually spend most of its time meeting privately because privately members at least can move a bit away from their party orthodoxy. Whereas if they were always meeting in public, they would just constantly be posturing politically to satisfy their base.

CONAN: And you say, in fact, those calling for transparency for public meetings on these issues are, in fact, afraid of success?

TAMA: I think that's right. The people who are criticizing this congressional supercommittee are generally people who are on the liberal or conservative end of the spectrum who don't want to see a kind of centrist grand bargain. And if this committee is to succeed, it would only succeed by coming out with something that's somewhere in the middle.

CONAN: And would need to get support from both parties. It's a group of - evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans. Again, you need at least one Democrat or one Republican to go along.

TAMA: That's right. You need seven out of 12 members to agree in order for the committee's proposals to be placed on a fast track in Congress. They - if seven of 12 agree, they would - the proposals would go for an up-or-down vote on the floor of Congress, which means that there could be no amendments, no filibustering, none of the tactics which typically delay legislation. But it means you would need one Republican and one Democrat. And I think, ultimately, what this will come down to possibly is is there a single Republican who will be willing to support any kind of substantial tax increase. If not, if the Republicans completely hold the line against tax increases, it's very hard to see how the committee could succeed.

CONAN: I believe every Republican member of the supercommittee is a signatory to the no tax pledge.

TAMA: And that's why I'm not optimistic about this committee succeeding.

CONAN: Even if it is in private.

TAMA: Even if - right. Basically, my view on this is that the privacy of these negotiations are the committee's only hope of succeeding. But even so, it's a long shot that it will succeed because the partisan pressures, the polarization of Congress is so intense now. It's just much harder now than it was in 1983 when the Greenspan Commission was operating for Republicans and Democrats to reach agreement on these big issues of the budget, taxes, spending.

CONAN: We're talking about backroom deals. In a previous era, it would have been smoke-filled rooms. But is privacy the best way to reach a negotiated agreement? Or should these conversations be held in public, where everybody can see what's going on? Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Ron(ph), and Ron is on the line with us from Manchester in New Hampshire.

RON: Yeah. I just would like to point out the other metaphor, making a government is like making sausage. You don't want to see what goes into it, and that hasn't changed. And most people who eat sausage probably don't want to know how (unintelligible) eat it anyway.

CONAN: Do you ever watch C-SPAN?

RON: Yeah, and kind of a joke actually. I don't think most of what these politicians say for the camera really means anything as far as them talking to each other. They talked passed each other. They posture for the camera. But, you know, what other choice do we have? You know, deliberations can be as simple as two people drinking coffee together. You know, you don't have to have a TV camera there for it to be a transparent government. What they come up with, what they decide, they can be judged on. And come election time, hopefully, they will be. But as far as making all this stuff public, I mean, you don't see like war treaty resolution deliberations in public either because people have to make tough decisions. They're not going to make those tough decisions with a TV camera over their shoulder.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting you mentioned that. There was a famous debate before the first Persian Gulf War in the House of Representatives, and, indeed, the United States Senate, where people did vote on a war resolution. And the debate was held entirely in public, and people then did cast their vote. It did pass but not by a lot. And I wonder, Jordan Tama, those kinds of decisions are very, very difficult, as you say. And do you think that the posturing that the people, well, undoubtedly commit to - given the seriousness of a situation like that, war and peace, sometimes they rise above that.

TAMA: People do rise above it. I think, in this case, it's important to keep in mind that, ultimately, there would be still a very public debate if this committee's - if this committee does reach agreement on proposals (unintelligible)...

CONAN: They have to come out with recommendations. They do have get voted on.

TAMA: Right. They would get voted on in Congress publicly and that would be an extremely public debate that would, you know, be the thing that everybody in the country is talking about at that time. So that's important to keep in mind. Really, all that's happening here is deliberations preceding a vote are happening in private, and that's something that happens on all issues, all the time. As the caller just mentioned, the government does deliberate over everything privately regularly.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rod(ph), Rod with us from Boulder.

ROD: Yes, sir. My comment is about Greece. I mean, look at what's happening there. The markets are in trouble because as soon as they figured out that they're going to give a referendum to the Greek - to the Greeks that it's going to be untenable for that populace. So, I mean, basically, everybody has, you know, said that this is just not going to happen. Like, now we're at square one again, and I'm just afraid that that would happen. If we were to, you know, open up these negotiations out of the privacy of what's going now, you know, that you're just going to have a situation just like that.

CONAN: Direct democracy, put the European bailout deal to the Greek voters. And, well, some people say, how - why did you decide to do that, Prime Minister Papandreou, when there's 65 percent who are opposed to it in the polls? But that's another question.

TAMA: Right. Well, I don't think we'd be well-served by having a referendum on this issue in the U.S. or having this - the whole taxes and spending issue dealt with through referenda. California has run into a lot of problems through the use of referenda there. But I do think the public will have its chance to weigh in on this because, ultimately, members of Congress have to run for re-election. And so, in a democracy, that's where the public gets to weigh in most powerfully. People can be voted out of office if their constituents are not happy with what they're doing.

CONAN: If there is a proposal, if it does come to a vote, every member of the House of Representatives would be up for re-election in less than a year and a third of the United States Senate. We're talking with Jordan Tama about his op-ed, "In Defense of the Back-Room Deal." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I wonder, did you get angry responses to your op-ed after it got published in the Times?

TAMA: I did hear from a few members of the public, and I imagine the Times heard directly from many other people. Some people chose to write me directly on my own email account, and people were - some people were not happy with my argument about secrecy. It's never easy to defend secrecy in any context because transparency is something that just seems to be inherently good, and people assume that transparency is always to the good. And so I'm making, I think, a bit of a counterintuitive argument there.

But the reason why I made that argument is because I've done a lot of research on blue ribbon commissions, special commissions that are set up to look at all kinds of issues and...

CONAN: Normally described as a place where controversies go to die.

Exactly. Right. The conventional wisdom is that these commissions are a waste of time, that no one pays attention to them. And what I found in looking at a lot of commissions, especially ones that have dealt with national security and foreign policy issues like the 9/11 Commission, is that far more than people realize, they often are the key institution that forges bipartisan consensus because of the fact that on these commissions, there's always a mix of Republicans and Democrats, and they spend a lot of time together, talking privately, deliberating privately. They actually get to know each other, sometimes become friends.

TAMA: And through that process, they often actually manage to reach agreement as the 9/11 Commission did, issuing a unanimous report that called for a big overhaul in the intelligence community, which was quite influential.

CONAN: Well, before the supercommittee, before we even had debate over the debt ceiling, the president appointed a blue ribbon panel to look into the debt problem.

TAMA: That's right. This was a panel chaired by former Senator Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, very bipartisan. The members were a mix of Republicans and Democrats. And 11 of the 18 members ultimately agreed to a very ambitious set of proposals. It was a set of proposals for $4 trillion of spending cuts and tax increases.

CONAN: Over the next 10 years.

TAMA: Over the next 10 years, right, which is actually more than the supercommittee is being asked to do. And so it wasn't unanimous, but the fact that 11 of 18 agreed was itself fairly remarkable because it - among those 11 were quite a few Republicans and quite a few Democrats and...

CONAN: But no Republican member of the House of Representatives.

TAMA: Exactly. That's right. And that's, I think, an area where this committee is facing a strong headwind. The - one of the challenges with this committee is all of the people on the committee are current lawmakers. And independent commissions often of people who are outside of government, and those people aren't as subject to intense political pressures. And the Republicans in Congress right now are - many of them, ideologically, are just firmly opposed to raising taxes, and even if they themselves would be willing to consider raising taxes, it's very hard politically for them to do that. And so that's the biggest problem facing this committee.

CONAN: Let's go next to AJ(ph). AJ is on the line from Kalamazoo.

AJ: Good afternoon. I'm a history teacher, and I think there's a historical example that serves us when we talk about this. If you look at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it would've been impossible for the bundle of compromises that came out of that to be done in public. The reason that the members kept the Constitutional Convention secret was because it was the only way they could get away from political pressure and political posturing. And so what we ended up with was this document that satisfied everybody in some sense, satisfied no one in some senses as well too.

The secrecy was absolutely paramount because there was no posturing necessary. Everybody can say what they wanted in private, in secret. They could work out all the compromises ahead of time, and there was no pressure on them from the outside. And I think, you know, I agree with you about transparency is usually the best policy, but in this case, I absolutely agree that it's imperative that it remains secret because it's the only way that these members - these are members of Congress that have to face re-election. It's the only way that they can possibly negotiate anything is if they're not subjected to those outside influences, those outside pressures.

CONAN: And somebody might point out that one of those compromises punted 80 years down the road resulted in the Civil War but...

TAMA: Right. Well, the agreement may not have been - well, certainly was not perfect. But that caller is absolutely right, and that's a great historical example where privacy was essential to reach an agreement on very, very difficult issues. And actually, I mentioned some outraged messages I got in response to my op-ed. I actually got a email from a high school sophomore who, I think, has probably been taking U.S. history this year in school, and she made exactly that point, that the secrecy of those negotiations during the Constitutional Convention was critical.

CONAN: AJ, thanks very much for the call.

AJ: Thank you.

CONAN: You said you're not terribly optimistic, though, even given privacy.

TAMA: Right. I'm not terribly optimistic because of a couple of factors. One, the fact that, as I mentioned, all the people on this committee are current members of Congress. And what I found in my research, which I've written up in a book called "Terrorism and National Security Reform," is that independent commissions tend to be more capable of actually forging bipartisan consensus because of the fact that once people are out of government, people are much more likely to be able to compromise.

I interviewed one person, James Baker, who had been the chair of a number of commissions, former secretary of state, and he said it helps to have has-beens on commissions because they have no political axe to grind, which I think captures that well.

CONAN: And no political future.

TAMA: And no political future, but for commissions, that can be good. But the other factor is just the intense polarization of our political environment today. It makes it very hard for the committee to succeed.

CONAN: You could find a link to Jordan Tama's New York Times piece, "In Defense of the Back-Room Deal," at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much for your time.

TAMA: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Tomorrow, the killer apps that propelled Western civilization and why those days may be numbered. Neil Ferguson joins us. Plus, Captain Dad. Join us for that conversation. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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