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Transparency

Hickenlooper wrong: Back-room deals may be efficient, but they do not reveal the ‘why’

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is doing some ’splainin’ about comments he made in an interview with Time magazine, suggesting that he believes transparency makes legislating more difficult. Of course it does, because accurate and honest representation – not ease of legislation – is the governmental value Americans hold most dear.

Here is what Time reported: “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. “We elected these people; let them go into a back room like they always did.”

Hick now says that is not quite what he meant; instead he was discussing ideas from a column on dysfunctional politics.

He is absolutely right that posturing for the public, with a future election firmly in mind, does not produce the best results. Transparency, he said, creates problems.

Actually, behaving badly creates problems.

The trouble with back-room deals is that they prevent the public from finding out who owes what to whom. Jim Manley, a former top aide to Sen. Harry Reid, told Time that trading earmarks – I will push for a boon for your district if you will back a project in mine – greased the wheels of government.

There is no denying they have now ground nearly to a halt, but let us place the blame where it belongs: with hyperpartisanship that is more concerned with creating losses for opponents than good government for the nation. There is also no denying that votes are still being traded tacitly, influence is still being peddled with a wink and a nod, lots of money is still being spent wastefully, and most of it happens behind closed doors. Public scrutiny has not stopped that.

Legislators must balance factors that sometimes cannot be reconciled: What is best for my district? What is best for my country? What is best for my future employability either as an elected official or as a lobbyist? Is this the best place and time to use my limited influence? Can I look my constituents and my children in the eye after this vote? Will I get caught?

Constituents have varying priorities. Some want principles upheld at all costs. Some favor practicality and the ability to accomplish something – anything – that creates forward progress. Some want their elected officials to accomplish a single very specific goal: preserve Social Security, defend the Second Amendment, fund repairs to a crucial water project, bring the troops back home. All deserve to know what their government is doing on their behalf.

Colorado has laws that protect the public’s right to know. One of the most significant pillars of the state open-meetings law is that decisions cannot be deliberated in private and rubber-stamped in public by bodies subject to the law. Even when the governmental entities are not legislative in nature and so are not subject to that particular provision, transparency is crucial because it is important to know why elected officials act the way they do.

Is it because they have considered all the information available to them (including some they actually had to seek out themselves) and made the best decision possible? Are they responding to constituents or some other force? Is it because somebody knew somebody? Who benefits? Who does not? Who is shut out of the process?

Transparency adds accountability to voters, and that is a good thing, even when it is damnably inconvenient. Hick has disappointed a lot of Coloradans by suggesting otherwise.

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