Negotiation is a very difficult thing to do in broad daylight. As with our gelded political parties, Congress is weakened by too much democracy. Our modern sensibilities are hostile to “smoke filled rooms”—literally and figuratively— but the relative secrecy implied by the term is essential to hammering out disagreements and reaching compromise. We would not have our Constitution if the delegates in Philadelphia in 1789 did their work in front of an audience. The light of our Constitution itself was lit in darkness. By way of comparison, many of the meetings that drove the French Revolution were conducted in front of a live-studio-audience, as it were, which encouraged leaders of different factions to pander to the cheers and boos of the onlookers rather than craft responsible positions that took into consideration unpopular, but important, compromises with political reality.
This is fairly analogous to the problems we have today with an excess of sunlight. Many senators and representatives are legislators in name only. They see themselves as rebels, tribunes of “the people” (in reality a tiny slice of the people), or simply as pundits, who use Congress as a stage or studio to broadcast their “takes” to the wider world. In short, they are there entirely to talk, or shout, but rarely to listen.
“Most of what happens in committee hearings isn’t oversight, it’s showmanship,” writes Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. “Senators make speeches that get chopped up, shipped to home-state TV stations, and blasted across social media. They aren’t trying to learn from witnesses, uncover details, or improve legislation. They’re competing for sound bites.” But he adds, “There’s one notable exception: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the majority of whose work is done in secret. Without posturing for cameras, Republicans and Democrats cooperate on some of America’s most complicated and urgent problems. Other committees could follow their example, while keeping transparency by making transcripts and real-time audio available to the public.”