How Transparency Limits Effective Governance


D’Angelo demonstrated the eff ects of lobbyists on the House of Representatives. Photo provided by Stylianos Papardelas.

Congress’ every move is subject to public scrutiny, and according to James D’Angelo, this can be a bad thing. On Thursday, Sep. 6, he gave his talk “How Government Transparency Limits Effective Government” for the first time.

  “I’ve [researched] congressional transparency … over the last five years,” said D’Angelo.

Government officials always risk being targeted by rulers and citizens alike. Currently living in Uganda with his wife, D’Angelo noted that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni recently imprisoned politician Bobi Wine for speaking out against him. In the 1600s, King Charles I of England arrested many members of parliament, and the votes would change drastically in his favor when he attended parliament sessions. Representatives also risked being targeted by their constituents, whether confronted by mobs that wanted to hang them or chased across the country by a few armed individuals.

When America’s founding fathers held the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention to discuss and draft the framework of the government, they assigned guards to the doors and covered every window.

Said James Madison, “No constitution would ever have been adopted … if the debates had been made public.” And written in the constitution itself is Congress’ right to secrecy: “Each House shall keep a journal of its proceedings … excepting such such parts as may in their judgement require secrecy.” And the Constitution itself “never stated that names should be attached to votes,” said D’Angelo.

Much later, in 1970, President Nixon’s administration brought forth the Legislative Reorganization Act, which opened the doors of Congress to constituents and introduced a state-of-the-art, million-dollar electronic voting system. Suddenly, every representative’s vote could be easily tracked. Also as of 1973, large Jumbotrons were installed, giving long lists of names and color-coding them based on how they voted.

Madison once said, “It was best for the convention to sit with closed doors. By secret discussion, no man felt himself obliged to retain his opinions any longer then he was satisfied of their propriety and truth, and was open to the force of argument.”

D’Angelo pointed out that now, our Congress could not be farther from this state. In House records, “There is no evidence of anyone changing their minds,” said D’Angelo. “It was all partisan — it was all the opinions they had walked in with.” Thus Congress’ only function is now voting, and it is no longer useful for the exchanging of information and opinions in order to come to agreements.

D’Angelo then reviewed a series of changes that occurred within government and society after the Legislative Reorganization Act was passed. Federal tax rates, originally quite different for each economic class, converged to relatively similar tax rates for every class.

Said D’Angelo, the incarceration rate “has gone through the roof” since the 1970s. He stated that “prisons don’t work,” but when the things said in Congress are open to the public, no representative will be willing to say in front of his constituents that he chooses to be more lenient on crime. “People always think crime is worse than it is,” said D’Angelo.

“Lobbying firms really take off after 1970,” added D’Angelo. This was because lobbyists — originally corralled to the lobby — could be more successful when they had access to the interior of the House of Representatives, especially when they were able to see which votes needed to be changed with bribes.

“No one’s gonna give you money if they can’t confirm the vote,” said D’Angelo. Therefore, a secret ballot prevents bribery. “Open up the votes, and money’s flying in to change the votes.” However, the money often is not used as a way to pay for a representative’s vote, but rather as a means to fund the negative advertising campaigns with which lobbyists and other politicians can threaten a representative, should they not vote the way the lobbyists want.

“Almost all dark money goes to one thing,” said D’Angelo. “It goes to negative advertising … the [lobbyists] don’t beg anymore. They just go, ‘We’re watching you.’”

“I thought that [transparency involved] measures taken by the government to increase accountability … D’Angelo’s argument is that transparency actually undermines the legislative process and benefits powerful lobbying groups more than regular citizens,” said Adam Poyner, a senior math education major.

After 1976, a factor known as the “Mean Party Difference” also increased  — meaning partisanship was on the rise. Also, as D’Angelo pointed out, because meetings of Congress are televised and heavily photographed, grandstanding is much more a problem. This occurs when a politician gets a chance to speak, but instead of trying to use the opportunity to understand other points of view better by asking questions or trying to clarify main points of a bill, he uses it to preach about his party’s agenda.

“There is no one asking questions anymore,” said D’Angelo. On television, he claimed, no representative will say they didn’t understand a word, or ask for a brief summary of the bill in question.

Because the ballot is not secret, and anyone can check the way a representative voted in Congress, D’Angelo claimed that representatives are therefore vulnerable to threats on their career. Not only are they subject to negative ad campaigns against them during the next election cycle, but entire parties can threaten to undo the hardest work of their political career.

“These members are terrified of not getting what they want done,” said D’Angelo, and therefore such threats can be potent.

“Even if you believe bribery is a problem, the secret ballot prevents that,” D’Angelo repeated. “Corruption relies on transparency.”

He gave an example in a CNN article titled “Kochs pledge millions to GOPers in 2018  if they vote no on health care bill” from March 2017. This, D’Angelo pointed out, was a particularly flagrant circumstance of corruption.

About 14 students and faculty attended the talk, given in the fourth floor of the Earl K. Long Library. Poyner called it an “illuminating presentation.”

“I especially appreciated his closing argument that the first step in making improvements … is to educate the public about … the necessity of secrecy in some areas of governing,” Poyner concluded.

The lecture is one of seven in the Honors Program Fall 2018 lecture series, entitled “The Virtues of a Free Society.” Said Chris Surprenant, Director of the Honors Program, “I’m especially thankful to the UNO Student Government Association [for funding] — not just this year, but the last six years since I’ve been here.”