Does Transparency Inhibit Political Compromise?

The forthcoming article “Does Transparency Inhibit Political Compromise?” by Jeffrey J. Harden and Justin H. Kirkland is summarized by the author(s) below. 

The public’s ability to see the workings of its government has a surprisingly short history in the United States. The open government debate was not a central element of early American institutional discussion, and several Framers suggested that many of the compromises reached to help ratify the Constitution would have been impossible with open meetings and transparent deliberation. Beginning in the early 20th Century, however, institutional reformers began to push for greater transparency in policymaking across the country, leading to a variety of “sunshine laws. Much like the Framers’ arguments about transparency, opponents of these reforms suggested then, and continue to suggest now, that excessive public oversight of legislative business makes compromise between political parties much more difficult, and entrenches disagreements. The implication is that transparent deliberation rules like open meetings laws lead to break downs in legislatures’ capacity to negotiate compromise and ultimately relieve policy gridlock.  

We set out to test these arguments by delving into state legislative histories in the U.S., focusing specifically on when statefirst passed open meetings laws for state governments. Importantly, in the years following the passage of those open meetings laws, several state legislatures granted themselves (and only themselves) exemptions from the laws. That is, these exemptions required all other legislative bodies in a state (e.g., city councils, county commissions, school boards) to conduct opendoor meetings, exposing their deliberations to public attendance and oversight, but allowed all or some of the state legislature to hold closeddoor meetings. We then pair the timing of the adoption of these laws and their exemptions with several measures of policy gridlock and compromise in state legislatures. 

Using a variety of methods to examine panel data, we find virtually no meaningful effects of open meetings laws on compromise or policy production in state legislatures. These negligible effects are precisely estimated and consistent across multiple measures and models. Moreover, we find little evidence of heterogeneity in the effects across states. Said simply, we find essentially no empirical support for the arguments of opponents of open meetings laws. States with open meetings are no more or less likely to pass budgets on time than they were before passing those laws, are no more or less polarized or bipartisan, and pass roughly the same number of bills before and after the institutional reforms.  

Opponents of open meetings laws paint something of a dire picturethat the public must choose between an effective government and a transparent one. The public can either monitor the behavior of its representatives and hamstring their efforts to produce policy, or it can leave representatives to their own devices and trust that representatives are working for the common good behind closed doors. Our work suggests that this pessimistic view is an overstatement. Open meetings laws may have a variety of effects on the policymaking process, but we have little reason to suspect that they create an excessively difficult policymaking environment.   

About the Author(s): Jeffrey J. Harden is Andrew J. McKenna Family Associate Professor at University of Notre Dame and Justin H. Kirkland is Associate Professor, at University of Virginia. Their research “Does Transparency Inhibit Political Compromise?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.