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Why Transparency in Congress is Giving Power to the Wrong People

When it comes to what is wrong with Congress, some blame a campaign finance system run amuck, others point to unsustainable spending, some call out the high incumbency rate, and for others, partisan politics receives a great deal of fault. In response, a variety of groups have proposed reforms and even constitutional amendments to regulate campaign contributions, balance the budget, and to establish term limits.

Yet, what evidence is there that passing such major reforms would actually improve how Congress functions versus something a little more simple and fundamental to democracy, such as, say… secret ballots? More importantly, what if the lack of secrecy is actually a significant contributor to the rise of all those other problems and more? That is the question a little known thinker has asked, and his answer may just be revolutionary.

What if the lack of secrecy is actually a significant contributor to the rise of all those other problems (with Congress) and more?
Bruce Skarin, IVN Independent Author
With public trust in government on a steady and historic slide since the 1970s and the implications of the sweeping study done by Gilens and Page
showing that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” there is little wonder why voting is also taking an unprecedented dive.

Overwhelmed by evidence like this, there no longer is any question about the existence of a dangerous problem within our Republic. The only real question that remains is: What do we do about it?

Campaign finance reform advocates like Lawrence Lessig have written at length about how the institution of Congress has been corrupted by the steady influence of political elites and industries that give to campaigns, provide gifts to members, and offer lucrative jobs to staff and representatives after they “retire” from Capitol Hill.

To counter this kind of elite influence, several reforms have been proposed, ranging from fairly simple statutes that use tax dollars or tax credits to voluntarily incentivize voter-based campaign funding over big donations, to a constitutional amendment that clarifies the division between political money and political speech.

Yet as sensible and practical as these reforms may or may not be, according to James D’Angelo, they all fail to address an even more fundamental and significant flaw within our democracy — the loss of secrecy in Congress.

At the age of fifty, James D’Angelo is not your typical political theorist. In an exclusive interview for IVN.us, James explained the origins of his insight and the evidence supporting its effect on policy making.

As a former NASA scientist that worked on the 1996 POLAR spacecraft, James has a strong formal background in biology and technology. So why is D’Angelo talking about the importance of secrecy and what is so revolutionary about this insight?

In one word: Leverage.

It was around 2000 when he first began to get curious about the role of secret ballots, a core principle of democracy that is at least 2,500 years old. He asked a simple question: if secret ballots were important, why didn’t Congress use them? When he posed this question to a few historian friends at the time, they quickly shut him down. If it wasn’t well noted in history, how could it have had any significant impact?

By 2006, D’Angelo’s scientific background brewed within him an increasing concern about climate change and he decided he needed to get out of the U.S. and see what was actually happening in the world. While living in Gabon and taking stock of the massive environmental changes taking place there, he was surprised to discover many countries in Africa were struggling just to pay for elections, the very first step to any successful democracy.

James D'Angelo

James D’Angelo in Morocco in 2012

In the United States, elections are often taken for granted or even regarded as a nuisance in our increasingly packed lives. This is especially true considering the lack of quality candidates and the inconvenience of having only one day and place you can vote (putting aside mail-in ballots).

Yet in Africa, the importance of elections might mean the difference between life and death for one’s people.

As a technologist, D’Angelo then asked: why were people still using this expensive old school system of polling stations with paper ballots anyway? How much cheaper could it be with good cryptography and cell phones?

It took James another two years to finally figure it out while he was living in Kenya supporting the 2008 elections that all Americans were advised to leave because of the violence that erupted. Ignoring the advice, he stayed on and continued thinking that there must be a better way for people to vote. He started to promote cryptographic methods of mobile voting, but quickly found himself being laughed at by locals.

“It took me a second,” James explained, “because when you are really invested in something, you don’t see the obvious answer.”

It was a Kenyan security guard that he recalls most clearly in finally making it obvious to him.

“He said it’ll be a unanimous election,” James recounted. “You’re going to have the local chief just tell everybody, ‘bring me your phone,’ and he’ll vote for them.”

From that perspective, it really was quite obvious; the whole reason we still go to the polls and use clunky paper ballots is because the privacy they create is a required ingredient for a healthy democracy. More to the point, it is secrecy, not transparency, that is one of the best protections against the leverage that comes from the ability to commit voter fraud and intimidation.

From his research, James points out that as far back as mid-4th century B.C., Aristotle described a secret voting system for judicial matters that was devised to prevent retaliation against jurors. Throughout history James has found countless other examples of how open voting was used to either intimidate voters or buy votes and how secret ballots ended the practice. Even here in the U.S., fraud was rampant prior to secret ballot reforms, with votes being bought for as little as a drink of whiskey.

Then, in 2012, D’Angelo was forced to return to the U.S. to care for his mother after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After the disappointment of discovering how his ideas about cheaper elections through cell phone voting could lead to massive voter fraud and intimidation, James was turned onto Bitcoin by a former colleague who saw its potential for solving “Tragedy of the Commons” problems.

It was that line of thinking that would eventually lead him to netting the top prize at an MIT contest, where he proposed using a Bitcoin-like system to combat climate change as a social movement.

As remarkable as the idea was, James also knew that even if adopted, it would likely take decades to have an impact. The best chance for more immediate action was still in Congress.

Through his discussions with climate lobbyists and a number of actual representatives, he was surprised to learn that even some of the most publicly vocal opponents to climate legislation acknowledged the problem in private.

“That’s when I knew that something was really wrong,” James explained.

Determined to understand this breakdown in policy making, in 2014, D’Angelo immersed himself in research. When it comes to voting on bills in Congress there has always been some degree of transparency, but as he looked deeper into policy making failures, whether it was acting on climate change, dealing with accelerating economic inequality, or the rising power of lobbyists, all the data kept pointing to the 1970s.

“Something changed in the 70s,” he remarked. “So I literally started in 1969 and went through every bill.”

Fortunately he didn’t have to look too long before he found the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. At the time, the bill was heralded as a significant “sunshine” reform and it was intended to provide the public with greater transparency on what was going on in Congress.

The change that D’Angelo found particularly important happened with the Committee of the Whole in the House of Representatives, which plays a major role in crafting revenue and spending bills.

Prior to the act, votes were voiced to a teller and only the final tally was recorded. It was a practice that had been adopted by the First Congress from the British Parliament, which had used it to protect members against retaliation from the king.

After the act, however, each individual vote became a matter of public record, allowing both layman and elite interests to see exactly how a bill took shape.

But isn’t more transparency a good thing? According to D’Angelo, not always.

By making the process more transparent, the final product (the bill passed by Congress) has become more obscure. James notes how the total number of pages of statutes has taken off, making it impossible for representatives to read the bills they are passing.

By making the process more transparent, the final product (the bill passed by Congress) has become more obscure.
Even back in the 1980s, the appeal of “sunshine” reforms faded with former proponents, who noted that “bills were better when drafted away from lobbyists’ watchful eyes.”

In reference to lobbyists, James explained that they are the only group that needs transparency to survive.

“They need transparency like we need oxygen,” he quipped, because without it, they would have no way of guaranteeing whether or not lobbying was a good investment.

There has also been plenty of very public evidence of fraud and intimidation taking place in Congress.

One of the most stark examples is the 2003 passage of Medicare Part D, where Republican leaders, in an unprecedented move, held the vote open in the House for almost three hours while members were subjected to arm twisting so intense that many fled the capitol building while one member was brought to tears.

Another prime example occurred in 2013, when it was discovered that lobbyists were literally writing portions of a bill before Congress. Even more recently, John Boehner was accused of harsh retaliations against a fellow party member that voted against him as speaker.

Partisan politics also increased dramatically since the 1970s, because party leaders could see precisely how members were voting. In fact, in 2012, GOP members were warned that their voting patterns were being watched by party leadership and that their votes could affect coveted committee assignments.

Roll call voting has also been used increasingly by partisans as a weapon to put opponents on the record for hot-button issues.

D’Angelo admits that taking away transparency alone might be tough to sell to a weary public, but he has made a solid argument that taking on other reforms like campaign finance may be fruitless endeavors without also addressing this crucial structural flaw in the policy making process.

James believes that more research needs to be done, but the issue of secrecy during the policy making process is an area that traditional academics have given remarkably little consideration.

Throughout history, the most revolutionary ideas often appear counter-intuitive at the beginning, but once pointed out they have a habit of becoming wrecking balls to the towers of dogma. After hearing about the journey leading to James D’Angelo’s insight and the research he has devoted, I must admit how struck I was by both the simplicity and the massive impact that such a fundamental principle of democracy could have.

How could we forget the importance of an idea that is so crucial and so old? More importantly though is, do we have what it takes to restore secrecy to the very institution we so foolishly came to demand transparency of?

Photo Credit: M DOGAN / shutterstock.com