In defense of politics in the Massachusetts General Court  

Push for greater transparency could backfire on advocates

THERE HAS BEEN a push by reformers at Act on Mass and the Mass Fiscal Alliance to make the Massachusetts General Court – our state Legislature – more transparent. At the top of their list is a reform to make votes in committees publicly available. This sounds good on its face. Transparency is essential for democracy and some see it as American as apple pie. But for the health of democracy, I urge the Legislature to pause.  

While it is not popular to say, unbridled transparency can damage our most representative institutions. Don’t just take it from me. There is a long record of concern, including by Ben Franklin and James Madison, backed up by abundant research to demonstrate the pitfalls of “sunshine” in the legislative branch 

Paradoxically, an overemphasis on transparency may have the opposite effect of what reformers intend. It is likely to hurt genuine deliberation, strengthen interest groups that reformers decry, and may even give leadership more power to shape decisions.  

First, deeper transparency tends to give power to interest groups – lobbyists — to press their demands. Lobbyists benefit from rules that enable them to monitor discussions and decisionmaking of elected officials in committees. With the slightest whiff that a member might not agree with them, they can mobilize their contacts to help stop potentially good legislation in its tracks. Ordinary citizens are no match for this. They can’t spend time on Beacon Hill — and often lack context to make sense of online information — to evaluate votes and organize with friends and neighbors. In short, sunshine reforms tracking the detailed internal affairs of the Legislature are typically more useful to insiders representing narrow interests than the broader citizenry.  

Second, transparency can make our representative institutions less deliberative, with less robust and frank debate about public policy. Making discussions highly accessible to the public incentivizes legislators to target their communications to external constituencies outside the Legislature rather than colleagues they need to work with to pass good laws. The goal is to look good rather than do good.  

Congress is an obvious example of where messaging has become more important to many than legislating. Using Twitter, members can score political points against opponents, shame colleagues, and try to torpedo discussions on policy. Calling out colleagues on committee votes or internal deliberations is especially valuable to extremists who value purity. The model here is the Freedom Caucus, whose members call other Republicans RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and threaten to enlist primary opponents against them. This kind of behavior erodes goodwill and the ability to forge the kind of compromises that make democracy possible.  

Finally, greater internal transparency has the potential to consolidate power in the leadership even more than it is today. For rank-and-file members to have power they minimally need private space to confer with colleagues in their assigned committees. Here, they can express views frankly, exchange creative ideas and consider those of people they may disagree with. This dynamic generates trust and the seeds of diverse coalitions created by the rank and file.  

Today, much – though not all — of that negotiation is managed by central leadership. Paradoxically, additional transparency in committees may only increase the likelihood of relying on “backroom deals” in the offices of the leadership, since these spaces will remain one of the few private zones in the Legislature essential for building policy coalitions.  

Reformers at Act on Mass say a lack of transparency is the reason the Legislature does not pass bold, progressive legislation. They claim that important bills discussed in committees get “sent for study.” This legislative norm, however, is a polite way of saying the bill is not ready for prime time. In other words, do some “politics” – a pejorative term to some reformers, but the essence of a functioning democracy.  

It means putting together a majority coalition that wants the bill. Instead, advocates for more transparency believe the unwillingness to move forward with their favored policies is an act of corruption. This political messaging undermines trust in the institution when used indiscriminately.  

To be sure, we want accountability. The public should know what the Legislature is deliberating, including information about the pros and cons of different pathways. Legislators and staff should also have time to consider perspectives of their constituents and review bills on the floor. At the end of the day, however, we hold the Legislature and our members accountable for the policies they make.  

The Massachusetts General Court, dating from 1713, is the second oldest democratic legislature in the world (the British Parliament came first). We cannot take for granted that the deliberative norms developed over centuries will continue if we impose standards that sound good but function poorly. On balance, the General Court seems to be doing a reasonable job at addressing challenging issues related to criminal justice, climate, and health care. And they are doing it in creative and bipartisan ways that Congress and other state legislatures have not been able to accomplish. It must be one reason that the General Court has the highest public approval rating of legislatures in the nation.  

Is Beacon Hill free of venality, self-serving actions, or bias against people of color and other under-represented groups? Of course not. Our representative body is partially a reflection of who we are as flawed citizens. Rather than judge the State House by whether it passes progressive bills – as Act on Mass seems to do — a better measure of a fair legislative process is whether the same groups in the Legislature get ignored consistently. We should be attentive to that outcome, but no one gets what they want all the time.

Meet the Author
So before we start tinkering with reforms to make the General Court more transparent, let us ask ourselves, what is the problem we are trying to solve? If we want to improve deliberation and representation, then let us talk about ways we might do that. But the full set of reforms being proposed by Act on Mass and supported by unusual bedfellows on the right at Mass Fiscal Alliance, if enacted, will undermine these goals. Instead, they will make the institution more tightly controlled by leadership and responsive to media-savvy politicians and insider lobbyists. 

Raymond La Raja is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.