The success of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the last comprehensive reform of the tax code, can be attributed in large part to the efforts of a few powerful men in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, namely Dan Rostenkowski and Bob Packwood. They belonged to different political parties, yet they shared the same ability to engage in old-school politics: the elbow-rubbing behind closed doors that ensures a bill’s survival by making it more palatable to the group as a whole. Yes, there was media coverage of this event, but there was no 24 hour news cycle present that could blow up any issue or call into question any political official’s loyalty. A recent Politico article discusses how members of Congress now live under a constant microscope, afraid from doing or saying anything that could be misconstrued because it could be captured on a cell phone camera. One cannot argue about the benefits of transparency in a functioning democracy, but perhaps this effort has gone too far.
The argument can be made that the toxic environment in Washington is due in part to an ideological intransigence that did not exist even in the mid-1980s, which is definitely evident when one looks at voting records of Congress. That being said, perhaps there is a larger ideological divide because constituents back home now know more about what is being done at every minute in Washington, and it is very difficult for members of Congress to go behind closed doors to make any real progress on issues. In the 1980s, Dan Rostenkowski and Bob Packwood were political geniuses, able to trade political favors in order to enact policy. Too much transparency eliminates back-door politics and the benefits it can hold when people negotiate with one another, leaving only public ideological views. Sadly, we are now discovering that if votes in Congress are based purely on ideology, never again will a controversial bill be passed in Washington.