In Defense of Horse Trading Behind Closed Doors

Today we welcome a guest post from our friend Professor Ray LaRaja. He is an associate professor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and associate director of the UMass Poll. Prof. La Raja is author of Small Change: Money, Political Parties and Campaign Finance Reform and editor of New Directions in American Politics. He serves on the Academic Advisory Board of the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, DC. and is founding editor of The Forum, an electronic journal of applied research in American politics.  

A common trope in the media is that legislative deal-making is nefarious, especially when done ‘in secret’.  The most recent media harrumphing in the Herald and Commonwealth Magazine comes to light after a ham-fisted attempt by a legislator to thwart the building of a Cape Cod oyster farm — which was not even in his own district — by slipping in an eccentric amendment to a large bill.  Presumably he was doing it as a favor to the leadership that was lobbied by rich beachfront owners near Popponesset Island (like the Kraft family) who could not win their cause in the court system.   The amendment was imprudent overreach, and kudos to the journalist who helped pull back the veil.  At the same time, however, the media should not disparage wholesale the practice of horse-trading, which is etched into the very fabric of the Commonwealth’s Constitution.

First, consider that deal-making is often the product of members trying to be responsive to local interests. Unlike in many democracies that use proportional representation, which ignores local geography, Massachusetts’ voters elect their members from local districts.  That means members have strong incentives to listen to local concerns, even when these concerns don’t align with the priorities of the state. Local voters don’t necessarily want to hear that, so members fight for seemingly parochial amendments that will satisfy constituents.  This includes a budget line item to build a local public pool, refurbish an historical building, or even get the state to intervene on developments like oyster farms (although it seems more legitimate when the local legislator is doing the intervening…)

Second, deal-making keeps the legislative process moving.  Making laws and budgets is grueling work when you have 200 elected officials, representing every inch of the Commonwealth, divided between two chambers, while bargaining with a veto-wielding governor.  Some call it sausage-making.  James Madison might call it representative democracy.  The vote-trading and policy inconsistencies reflect the fact that everyone has some say in what goes into that sausage, however distasteful it may look on high from the editorial desks of news organizations.

Making legislation in a democracy requires order (dictators have it easy by comparison!).   While loathsome to many, hierarchy is required, meaning strong leadership.   To be sure, it is fair to argue how strong the leadership should be, but it is inconceivable to believe that anything can get done without someone having the authority to set deadlines and push people to the table.

Like much in life, pushing people to the table means offering them rewards and punishments. Otherwise we get stalemate.  In the Herald article, a legislator complains about “arm twisting.”  Cry me a river.  He has a choice: ignore the leadership and vote his conscience or go with the majority.  Voters will ultimately decide if his principled stand was worth the price of ignoring the arm-twist.

Finally, a word about things being done in secret.  While transparency in the policy-making process should be the default position, some of its champions think anything less the total openness to the public is a marker of corruption or the makings of a cabal against The People.  Keep in mind that the US Constitution was made in secret.  Why? Because leaders had to make tough decisions and compromises to bring everyone along.  In private they had the opportunity to listen to views of the other side and deliberate.  In today’s world of constant scrutiny and non-stop campaigning, members of Congress risk being called traitors by partisans at the moment they appear to compromise with the other side.  Do we want that in Massachusetts? Sometimes, it might be better to allow the kind of one-to-one discussions in back offices that lead to the compromises that most voters actually want.  To the horror of some, I’m suggesting that we keep a place for those smoke-filled rooms — without the smoke of course – where horse-trading might reasonably flourish.

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3 Responses to In Defense of Horse Trading Behind Closed Doors

  1. Bill Carito says:

    In a world where “politics” is being criminalized, how long before a legislative leader is indicted for stealing the “honest services” of a legislator by buying his vote for a budget with a fire engine for his district?

  2. Seth says:

    Actually the Constitution was written and debated in secret because originally the framers were rewriting the Articles of Confederation, but quickly decided they needed to scrap the whole thing and start fresh. Once they decided to scrap it, they were technically committing treason, though the Articles had proven so useless in the face of Shay’s Rebellion and other crises that most people went along with it. Best

  3. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor LaRaja:

    When someone wants there to be 100% transparency in government and that there will be no private space to make deals, I know for sure they have not held even the smallest of offices. I was once president of a large homeowners association and, though I was committed to transparency, found that 99% transparency was actually the right amount, as I often joked.

    Yes, politicians need to have some private space to speak freely, without worry that their words will be taken out of context, at a minimum. And yes, deals need to be made and not every deal is going to represent the best of governing. The key is to get good transparency and fair warning of the deal between the back room and the passage of the legislation.

    An amusing story you might already know: in the Republic of Venice, the longest-lasting in world history, they had a long period where their leaders took the unusual step of banning the discussion of politics by leaders outside the grounds of the legislature. (They really believed in good government!)

    The only place to make deals that wasn’t in the chamber was on the broglio – the name for the space right in front of the building. As it was the only place to make deals, it was a hotbed of good and bad politics. In fact, the modern English word, “imbroglio” – meaning a confusing or complicated or embarrassing situation or arrangement – comes from that place of horse-trading.

    So, yes, allow the deal-making to continue, but there should be tension between that and transparency. In Massachusetts politics, much could be done to improve transparency without unduly impeding the work of the sausage-makers.

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