The Bipartisan Call To Bring Back The Smoke-Filled Room

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Gov. John Hickenlooper

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a potential 2016 democratic candidate for president, has a creative — and controversial — idea for ending Washington, D.C.’s partisan gridlock: start legislating from behind closed doors, following on other calls to bring back the earmark.

After decades of fights for transparency in government, Hickenlooper told TIME that those well-intended initiatives are making government and lawmakers less effective. “We elect these people to make these difficult decisions, but now they are in the full light of video every time they make a decision,” Hickenlooper said at the National Governors Association meeting in Milwaukee, Wis. on Friday.  “We elected these people, let them go back into a room like they always did.”

One Republican governor in attendance endorsed the idea on the condition he not be named. This seemingly counterintuitive opinion — that outcomes would improve if the process is obscured — is catching on in Washington among political elites of both parties as a way of making a dysfunctional Congress work again.

Last year Rep. Thomas Reed, a Republican from New York, called on his party’s leadership to reinstate earmarks last year — in a bid to provide a tariff break to one local business. And House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster has made it clear he disagrees with the official Republican position opposing such specialized spending. Likewise Democratic appropriators want to bring back the old system. “Earmarks, in a responsible way, where it’s all public, you know what you want and you know what you’re going to get, I think it’s very, very helpful, because who knows the district better than a member,” Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, said in January.

Speaker of the House John Boehner implemented a ban on earmarks — federal funding for pet projects of lawmakers — when Republicans took the House of Representatives in 2011 as part of a push toward transparency and fiscal responsibility. But many have argued that the pork barrel spending served to grease the legislative wheels on Capitol Hill — and blame their absence for contributing to Washington’s legislative stalemate.

Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, called the earmark ban “one of the worst decisions Congress has made in recent years,” by ceding earmark authority to the Executive branch and giving most lawmakers little reason to invest their resources backing a bill. “You get members with the earmarks interested in the process and actually helping to try and push forward a piece of legislation — that’s why you have them,” he said.

In the first six months of the 113th Congress just 22 bills — almost none of them significant — have passed both chambers, the fewest number since records began being kept six decades ago. The 112th Congress, the first with the ban, was just as unproductive. Hickenlooper cited constitutional framer James Madison, saying, “part of the way he envisioned democracy working was that you had to trust these people that you elected.”

But there is little momentum within Congress to revert to the old way of doing things in the hopes to grease the wheels of lawmaking, with the Republican conference still beholden to anti-spending tea party lawmakers. “This is pretty simple: earmarks aren’t coming back any time soon,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.

Updated Wed. Aug. 7, 2013: “The governor doesn’t support brining back earmarks,” said Hickenlooper Communications Director Eric Brown.

20 comments
Ohiolib
Ohiolib

I have a better idea-quit electing teabaggers who make it a policy to platform to sabotage government whenever possible.

anon76
anon76

The problem is not earmarks, the problem is that one party has wedded itself to the ideology that Government is an a priori evil, that must be starved out of existence.  Pretty hard to get one side to compromise on action when inaction is precisely what scores them political points with their base.

destor23
destor23

"This seemingly counterintuitive opinion — that outcomes would improve if the process is obscured — is catching on in Washington among political elites of both parties as a way of making a dysfunctional Congresswork again."

Wow.  The elites would like freedom from the public eye.  Meanwhile, it's surveillance for everyone else!

fhmadvocat
fhmadvocat

We don't need to go back to "smoke filled rooms" or earmarks.  We need people in Congress who believe in good governing and not be so worried about the next fundraiser.  The problem is members of Congress spend too much time worried about the next election and spend most of their time raising money.

In addition, we need grown-ups in Congress.  Republicans need to stop spreading fairy dust that we can cut revenue and their constituents won't be affected by deep budget cuts.  Republicans loved the Ryan budget, but they refused to support the nitty-gritty details.  Democrats have to deal with the impending entitlement crisis.  Social Security and Medicare can not continue as it has in the past.

jmac
jmac

Perhaps Hickenlooper took note of the behind the curtain deal McCain was able to do to avoid the nuclear option and get Obama's nominees in jobs as McConnell is going to be out of commission for the next year and a half.    I don't have a problem with behind the scenes negotiations.    

But earmarks?   We have to bribe Congressmen to do the right thing with a promise of money to their state?    No.    

cent-fan
cent-fan

I'm sorry but I don't see it.  Backrooms and earmarks are the great political enablers of hypocrites and blaming the other guy for spending.  Right now in the face of all the nothing coming from Washington we're seeing the feeding frenzy of practical alternative pathways of necessity and plain old ideological desperation play out in state legislatures everywhere.  Reality will sort them out.  The likes of the Tea Party will have to live in the mess they make at the state level rather than get their breaks from the Fed at some other national program's expense.  I say let the states sink or swim and let the people see the carnage up close and personal.  They've been far too removed from it for too long.

glennra3
glennra3

Otto von Bismarck was an authoritarian and autocratic elitist, but he wasn't entirely wrong about the legislative process.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

But the Teapublicans want the federal government to become dysfunctional so they can defund and cripple it.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

I've been advocating for a bit for what I call "controlled corruption".  My argument: corruption is impossible to prevent and even harder to control unless you leave avenues open for corruption that are restricted in scope and scale - little pots of honey for lawmakers to get into and get their greed out of the way.  I've primarily applied it as my argument for why the Canadian Senate (which is a bunch of appointees who do nothing) should be maintained but the closest American equivalent, IMO, is the Earmark.  Self-interest is all-consuming at the top ends of politics with only the most extreme of exceptions - those that aren't inherently self-interested normally can't even get on the ticket let alone get elected. Assuming that self-interest can be removed is generally pointless idealism.

MrBenGhazi
MrBenGhazi

No, the answer is to elect representatives that don't mind government transparency. If you have a problem with open Democracy, get out of government.

JoeCogan
JoeCogan

There's a good deal of validity in the idea of returning to the smoke-filled room. As the saying goes, people who like sausages, and respect the law should never watch either being made. Partisanship would likely more readily give way to pragmatism if GOP lawmakers didn't have to pose as strict obstructionists for the camera to pacify their base.

Chosun1
Chosun1

The Constitution has been flipped upside-down.  Spending is supposed to originate with the House or Representatives, not the Executive Branch.   While I am supportive of many of the fiscal restraint goals of the TEA Party movement, I do not support the earmark ban.  Who knows better how to spend money on infrastructure in Washington State?  Sen. Murray (D), Rep. Reichert (R) (and their staffs) or bureaucrats in DC?  I don't understand how supposedly-pro-constitutionalist TEA Partiers are against Congress initiating controlling spending (including earmarks).  I've been arguing this point since I ever hear the phrase "earmark ban" and I will continue to argue it.  It is also important to note that many important small business defense R&D programs died because of the earmark ban -- such projects couldn't get written into DoD budgets because they couldn't offer cushy jobs to DoD retirees and they couldn't get private funding because they were classified (only Congressional earmarks, many supported by both major parties, kept them alive).   There are many other arguments for earmarks and very few good arguments against them (yes, there are occasional abuses but they are nothing compared with the abuses of Executive Agency requested spending).

BillytheMountain
BillytheMountain

@Ohiolib You're an ill informed buffoon. THIS government NEEDs to be sabotaged at every turn. If you don't recognize the unprecedented corruption and LEFTISM, you are a huge part of the problem. Or you are a huge leftist.

BillytheMountain
BillytheMountain

@anon76 Another idiot. Government IS a necessary evil. Intelligent people recognize that it MUST be limited. It is NOT the solution to anything.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@fhmadvocat The problem is if they don't spend all their time worried about the next election and spending most of their time raising money, then they won't get elected.  Someone who did will, and we are still stuck with someone who can't govern.


The problem isn't the elected, it's the electors.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@fhmadvocat

"In addition, we need grown-ups in Congress"

we also need grown ups in society that realize that not every problem in this country is solely the fault of one party and that both are to blame for where we are as a country and that maybe, just maybe, trying to find common ground and work together would be more effective than just "teabaggers are stupid" and "yeah? well libtards are stupid too"

babycheeks
babycheeks

@cent-fan "Backrooms and earmarks are the great political enablers of hypocrites and blaming the other guy for spending" you say. But the point your missing is the politicians in Washington are "hypocrites and forever blame the other guy for spending". They have stripped themselves apparently of the only tools that allow such people to get any legislation passed. I give up. Let us go back to the future with a corrupt functioning government and abandon the corrupt non-function government we now are having to endure.

cent-fan
cent-fan

@babycheeks Nope.  This is about taking the cover away from the ideologues.  The guy who says "no more taxes" or "boot all the illegals out" or "the environment is only for business to make money"... I want them to be forced to openly try to make that a reality.  I want them to be trapped by the wingnuts they cater to and that own them to walk that path until they are painted into a corner.  I want them to hold the country hostage until they get what they want so they reveal themselves in the bright light of day.

Bring back the backroom and all you get is some watered down legislation that is ineffective in all directions and every stinking politician smelling like a rose and able to say "it wasn't my fault"... and the polarity of political opinion will be more justified than ever because everyone will believe they're right .  The real history will never be known.