Monday, June 22, 2009

Up Front: Closed Meeting Budget

The budget was passed by both houses after extended private negotiations among the leadership and individual members. In this segment of Up Front, Jay Heck, executive director for Common Cause Wisconsin, complains about the lack of openness and transparency in this process. See the video here.

I expect many legislators would argue that open meetings stifle the negotiation necessary to reach agreement on complex issues, such as the budget. Legislators need to give as well as get and public meetings make that difficult. The result might well be stalemate rather than transparency.

Others, such as Common Cause, would say that is exactly the problem. The private deals are not defensible on their own merits, and so can only be agreed too when the public is banned from watching. Or to put a conservative spin on it, the growth of government comes from the unwillingness of legislators to ever give up "goodies" and both earmarks and protected programs are the consequence. This holds whichever party is in control because the constituent pressures are so strong when it comes to local benefits.

My question: would "real" open meetings resolve anything? Would private deals just move to other venues (cell phone calls?). Are private goods given to individual legislators the necessary lubricant for legislation? And consider the alternative: Could a member of the Wisconsin legislature win election and reelection by consistently refusing to deal for projects or policies that are particularly beneficial to their districts? Should they try?


  1. It's a difficult balance between doing what is arguably morally right and what is in the best interest of the constituents. Especially in the case of local represenation, as well as the US House of Representatives, every vote counts. Sometimes deals are necessary in order to appeal to the greater whole. Through open meetings, hopefully the public is exposed to the better side of politics and the deals being made are morally just while still benefiting those in need. Whether or not shady deals happen behind closed doors, via phone or email, cannot always be known. But that is why people have the write to vote in and vote out legislators based on such actions.

    Gena Wolfson

  2. I believe that depending on the legislator, making deals behind closed doors (via cell phone, email, etc) could be a major problem. Everyone wants to benefit from legislation and earmarks, but not everyone always will. Undoubtedly, deals will be made in a "if you vote for me, I'll vote for you" fashion. Unfortunately, politics doesn't seem to be about doing what is best, but about being reelected. Pleasing your constituents is crucial to this, so earmarks and pork will be a part of politics. It is unfortunate, but I do not think that open door meetings would really every change that. People might perceive things one way with an open meeting, but at a different time behind the scenes, different deals will be in the works...

    - Luke D.

  3. Passing legislation to force the caucuses to be open to the public will not prevent legislators from wheeling and dealing with each other out of the public eye. It's the nature of the game for their to be private communication between legislators, and whether it happens while proposing amendments in closed caucus or discussing upcoming bills over a phone call, it's going to happen. The public simply cannot (and, I think, should not) be aware of every single word and conversation had by a legislator.

    Opening up caucus is a good step to take to increase accountability and constituent knowledge of how their legislators are representing them, but it is not going to make the entire process suddenly transparent.

    In regards to earmarks, they are not by their nature a bad thing. Sometimes, there are legitimate projects which a district needs state funding for, and the district can call upon their representative or senator for help. If it's something the district is desperately need of, I see no problem with a lawmaker pushing for that earmark. In fact, to ignore those needs of his/her district would not only be harmful come next November, but goes against the legislator's mandate to represent those people who elected him/her in the first place.

    That being said, there are many earmarks which are created not because they are needed by the district, but simply because the lawmaker has the power to direct them back home and please his constituents. Example: the $500,000 for an opera house in Oshkosh contained in the 2009-2011 WI budget. A legislator who passed on those types of earmarks, but still pushed for the first type, would be both serving his district and doing what's best for the state.

  4. I believe it is important for legislatures to do their utmost best to reflect and meet the wants and needs of their constituents, and this might lead to "deal-making" and meetings behind closed doors. I believe that deal-making and meetings behind closed doors might help pieces of legislation move along quicker because, unfortunately, not everyone can always get what they want. Such activity can be carried out in a manner that is ethical and effective; however, it does raise certain ethical issues, such as slipping earmarks and pork into legislation in the middle of the night and the offering of personal benefits in order to get what someone wants accomplished, both of which we unfortunately see happen a lot today...

    -Leslie W.

  5. I agree with Luke that a major goal of politicians is to get reelected but I disagree in the sense that if a politician did everything behind closed doors and had no transparency then it would be difficult to get reelected. In our office, many constituents know what meetings are taking place and call to voice their opinion before or after that meeting. If everything was behind closed doors, you would lose that connection with those constituents. There has to be some transparency.

  6. I think that many representatives at the end of the day know that they are directly responsible to their constituents and will not do anything too indefensible. No one wants to answer thousands of abusive phonecalls as a result of voting against what their district wants, which then will probably lead them to not be re-elected. A lot of elected officials are also wary of deals that would make them look bad to their constituents because the few that have been leaked out by the press have spelled disaster for the politician's careers. Elected officials overall know they are responsible to a number of people and are being watched. I think this prevents most of them from making deals that are anything more then slightly beneficial, in order to get a crucial decision on certain issues.

    Would a little bit more transparency prevent representatives from cutting unfair deals that favor their districts? Yeah, quite possibly. But if there were never any additional benefits for the representative to vote one way or the other I do think that agreements would not be made on certain issues. That means more commitees, more debt accumulated in the meantime, and more time for interest groups to get representative's that are on the fence onto their side. Therefore fighting against beneficial deals would be a bad thing and just one reason why representative's should not fight against favorable deals. Plus private deals will always be made, legislatures cannot be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to stop it.

    Legislatures are charged with a hard task of doing a budget that is best for their constituents and for everyone else as well. Some have small-town districts and others have major cities; sometimes to get representative's of districts unconcerned about certain issues beneficial deals need to be made. Yes, it is a "darker side" of politics but if user fees and taxes were not increasing and it was merely different programs were being affected, how much openness would be called for? I think people interested in certain issues will always make their points known and people that wonder how their representatives voted will make inquires into such questions. So I agree with Gena Wolfson; at the end of the day with what we know, we as the public still have the power to vote them into office again in order to represent us in state legislation.

    -Lauren C.

  7. In my opinion, I do not think that "real" open meetings would resolve anything. Being a politician involves making tough decisions and too much transparency would make these types of choices nearly impossible. Often times what is best for your constituency isn't what is best for the state, or vice versa. Legislators need some privacy in negotiation so realistic deals can be hashed out. Politics has always been about give and take, especially at the state level. What might be seen as beneficial for one district, isn't necessary a worthy cause in the eyes of another district. If legislators were forced to be held accountable for every deal they made no one would ever cooperate on the tough stuff. For instance, being from Oshkosh I think the Opera House is a worthy cause for state dollars. Others may disagree. We need legislators to work with each other, otherwise no one would get any "pork". In my opinion, transparency would only lead to more private venues and less accountability. At least in caucus, the members of your party can keep a legislator in check.

    Julie Benkoske

  8. If you look back over time, it seems that the out group (in this case, the Republicans) complain about a lack of openness. However, when they were the majority party, if memory serves, they did the same thing. So, the first issue is, is this complaint based on principle or is this just hypocrisy?

    Of course, to the extent that the complaint is raised by the media, it might be considered more principled but, yes, the media is probably naive to think that there will not be "back room deals" no matter what the open meeting law says. What will simply happen is the public meeting will have been choreographed earlier and all important decisions will have been previously made. The senate passed the budget at 12:30 am today on a vote of 17-15. Does anybody really think that Senator Risser did not know what the vote was going to be before it was taken? -Sarah K.

  9. I think the Wisconsin budget was as open as any other legislation, I think the media was the problem. The coverage has, to be frank, been horrendous. I know an on the scene reporter for one of the television stations and she said she barely knew what was going on when she was reporting on the budget. I work in the wisconsin legislature and we tried to disseminate as much information as we could to the media and our constituents, but people just couldn't take the time to digest all of the information. Admittedly, the information is extremely dense but that is the job of the media-to take a wealth of information, sort out the meaningless and elaborate on the important topics. I honestly had no idea that the driver's certificates for undocumented immigrants was thrown out of the budget until today when I was writing a constituent. I know the mainstream media has been going through intense downsizing, but maybe this is one of the reasons why.

    Jake V

  10. My question is, if meetings were made more open like the people seem to be demanding, would we see a significantly greater amount of constituents coming in to watch? Many people have jobs and don't even live within a convenient driving distance of Madison, and most meetings happen during the business week, so I don't see how people would be able to make all these meetings. Don't get me wrong, I want there to be as much transparency as possible, I'm just trying to think realistically. On the other hand, many people claim they don't even know what's going on with the budget, but if they have a question they could just call their representative and ask. Staffers and legislatures are there to inform and be as helpful as possible. Also, the Governor's, JFC's, Assembly's, and Senate's and all combined budgets are all online if you go to the legislatures homepage.

    Deals are always going to be made behind the scenes, it's just a part of politics, again I'm not saying that's always right, but I don't think it's something that we're going to be able to fix right away. Sometimes we just have to pick and choose our battles. Many people complain that this is going on, and that they don't know what's going on, but a lot of the time people aren't making an effort to inform themselves. I can't say I've ever called my representative to ask what was going on when I was confused. People need to go out and seek the information if they're not getting it through the media. But, again, I do strongly wish the information was more frequently provided for constituents to see and be aware of what's going on. I fully support more transparency.

  11. In terms of questions regarding the current Budget deliberations that go on behind closed doors, I have seen it be both helpful and upsetting for constituents. In my internship, I have seen some of the benefits that come from these late-night meetings with legislators. As for the idea that deals are made behind closed doors in the wee hours of the morning, I can assure everyone that I have seen that no legislators would like to be deliberating well into 6am in the morning. It is more often than not an issue that arises to meeting times getting pushed back because of other items on the agenda that need to be resolved that day. Do I think that deals are made behind closed doors...yes. However, I have seen deals also be devised over the phone and know that deals have to be going on between emails as well. I do not think that having these meetings open to the public would do much to stop these "deals" that it seems will always have a place in politics, regardless of whether or not it is monitored by the public during these deliberations. Again, I agree and support the idea of full transparency, but I do not think that it is realisitic with the ways in which politics are carried out. In some ways, that is a bad thing because citizens may not always be completely clued in on everything, which I by no means agree with...afterall we elected these legislators in to help us run our state. But in some ways it is a good thing as well. These meetings help to accomplish the goals in dealing with issues, right now being the budget, and help to get things done quicker. In terms of whether or not this is the most democratic way to go about these funding and deficit problems, I think it is apparent that it may not be. But I agree with some of the other bloggers above in that, in the end, would constituents really go to the meetings, or is it just because they can't?

    In regards to the second question, I do not think that members will be continually re-elected if they do not listen to their constituent concerns. There is definately a fine line between trying to make the majority of their district's constituents happy with funding programs, voting the in favor of the things those constituents push for and such, and trying to vote with the policies that other legislators favor in order to come to a consensus. In the end, however, if the constituents are not made happy by their rep/senator, they will not re-elect them. And if they are not re-elected, they cannot make changes in the future if they are not in office. Bottom line is that it is very important to strike a balance between the 2 through listening to their districts and other memebers in the legislature because without this balance, nothing can be accomplished and noone will be happy with the end result.

  12. When playing politics becomes integral to the legislative process and an attitude of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” permeates legislative our bodies, the problem no longer lies in whether or not meetings concerning legislative decisions are held behind closed doors or not. Luke D. brings up an excellent point when he notes how it seems as if legislators are more concerned with their own reelection than addressing the specific needs of their constituents.

    Even if Senate meetings became public, would the game really change? Yes, it would bring a new element to the game; the public eye, but the same game would still be played. The strategies of these politicians would just become more intricate. The game of give and take would still be played. The legislators will give the constituents what they need, and ask for these earmarks in return. It will still remain a game of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” but instead of it being played within the legislature itself, it will be played with the public.

    -Jessica C.

  13. I don't think that public meetings would necessarily change anything, as it stands much of these agreements are made privately before the meetings anyway in an effort to save the time and effort needed to discuss them during the actual meeting themselves. These kinds of things are a necessary evil that is going to be extremely difficult to remove. If there is to much transparency, then I believe that the job of the legislator is hindered and fewer qualified candidates are going to want to put up with the hassle of being in office. I think it is simply something that comes with the territory, unfortunately. In the case of earmarks etc, I don't think that it would be smart to try to do away with them from the legislator's perpective, as they are an effective means of gaining support and attention from constituents. We would like to think that the public are not easily "fooled," by these goods, but that is not the reality.

  14. The state budget is a very complex issue, alloting funds and spending for the next two years to say the least. That type of spending is extremely important, aiming at taqckling laRGE ISSUES LIKE HEALTH CARE AND TRANSPORTATION COSTS. (didnt mean to capslock) But here is where I disagree with the opaqueness, the fact that people want to know what is going on; limiting their information doscourages active participation, especially when the entire state is on the line. I agree,it is a sticky situation, but maybe allowing for some sessions to be public would help. In Kngdon's first article,a legislator is said to have an idea as to whether or not their constituents are aware of the issues? Here is a case where constituents want to know more, but for some legislator, their being mere public becomes intrusive.
    In my opinion, the process should be more open, I mean, I work in an office and there hasn't been much said about it. Maybe it was the year? The difficulty? Hopefully, this will not be a trend.

  15. I do not think real open meetings would resolve anything. Legislators would definately just find another venue for discussions. I know that log rolling and vote trading are common practices within the legislature. I do not know if its a requirement, but I think many legislators would agree its beneficial for passing legislation. Political scientists have written many articles about constituent influence on legislators. Constituents within different districts interest in the politics of their legislator differ. A legislator from one district might be able to go against the system and not bargain for a bill without reprecussion. He or she might even be praised by constituents as a maverick. However another district and its constituents might simply want the legislation passed and see their legislator as being stubborn and ineffective. In this case they might reelect someone who could pass the legislation by any means necessary.


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