Not Even Promising 50 Years Of Secrecy Can Get Congress to Cooperate


In a last ditch effort for tax reform legislation, the top two members of the Senate Finance Committee, Democratic Chairman Max Baucus and Republican Orrin Hatch, assured their fellow senators that any suggestions offered would be kept secret for 50 years. Baucus and Hatch have realized, apparently, that the only way to get anything done in Congress in its current climate of gridlock and finger pointing is to promise mum’s the word for five decades. Yes, this is an utter failure of Congress and its ability to govern, but it is also a failure of a media that exists to mediate the relationship between the government and the public, yet refuses to hold elected leaders accountable and seems content to facilitate this sort of non-governance.

The state of affairs in Congress is bleak when senators agree to do their job only if everyone else promises not to tell. An aide for the Senate Finance Committee described the secrecy measures proposed by Baucus and Hatch as "standard operating procedure for sensitive materials." Since when is legislative debate on tax reform considered sensitive material? Why are senators only willing to offer suggestions for reform if their names remain unattributed? The only explanation is that a major divide exists between what these senators truly believe and what they're willing to cop to in public. Otherwise there would be no need for 50 years of secrecy. Yet any public suggestion for tax reform is seen as a concession to the other side — a depressing reality encouraged by a media intent on presenting every issue as a contest.

Framing every story as who's winning versus who's losing rather than presenting an accurate analysis of policy and legislation creates a political environment where the players are afraid — scared into silence, in fact — to do anything that might resemble working with the other team. Ezra Klein for the Washington Post gets to the heart of the matter: "If the opposition party doesn't want to cut a deal, there won't be a deal. And if all coverage of policy is colored by that core political decision, then there'll never be real pressure on them to make a deal, either."

It's a vicious cycle. Republicans don't want any successful legislation to come out of the senate while under a Democratic majority, so they're unwilling to compromise. An unwillingness to compromise means nothing gets done, which leaves the media little to cover but the very gridlock that halts the political process, which in turn motivates Republicans to continue to abstain from governing. Republicans aren't necessarily solely to blame here, as Democrats would likely do the same if the tables were turned, but the fact of the matter is nothing is getting done and the media only seems to want to cover policy in the context of how likely it is to pass (and everything, it seems, is unlikely).

Take, for example, the new push for tax reform after President Barack Obama's recent economy-focused speeches. A headline of a story in The Washington Post tags on the line that Obama's proposals were "quickly rejected by GOP." The New York Times describes Baucus and Hatch’s plan for tax reform as a "Lonely Bipartisan Push," suggesting that anything involving a negotiation between the two parties is dead on arrival.

If the senate discussion on tax reform featured named senators making public suggestions, perhaps there would be a productive analysis of legislation for the media to cover. Instead, however, we have senators giving anonymous tips that will be put on ice for 50 years and a media presenting the issue as a non-starter, leaving the public little chance to influence the governance that is, supposedly, for them and by them. All we're left with is failed coverage of a failed government.