Washington, D.C., used to be a city known for its “wise men.” These were the individuals who could be counted on to be the calm voice of reason during times of crisis and heated debate.
From President John F. Kennedy calling on Gen. Maxwell Taylor following the Bay of Pigs invasion to President Ronald Reagan calling on former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) during the Iran-Contra scandal, these were the men to whom our leaders turned for frank advice when the situation was dire and their backs were against the wall.
If there are still wise men in Washington today, then one of them most assuredly is former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.). He served 20 years in the House, rising to ranking member of the Budget Committee and becoming a leading expert on budget and trade issues.
Upon his retirement from Congress in 1991, he didn’t cash in and go to K Street. Instead, Frenzel became a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a place that allowed him to continue working in the realm where he thought he could serve his country best — the realm of ideas. In the two decades since, he has been called on by Republican and Democratic presidents to help tackle some of the toughest challenges facing America.
Frenzel wrote an essay for the Ripon Forum this spring that warrants greater attention today.
The essay, “Sunshine Is for Voting, Not Bargaining,” focused on the issue of transparency in government. Specifically, it dealt with whether a commission that was tasked with reaching a “grand bargain” on America’s fiscal future should be required to meet in public or be able to deliberate in private, without Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz and every other member of the media — as well as every interest group — scrutinizing every word that the panel members say.
What makes this essay relevant now is the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction is faced with this very question. In the month since the committee was formed, individuals from both sides of the aisle have demanded that committee meetings be open to the public. On Aug. 3, six Republican Senators wrote a letter, which stated in part: “If our colleagues wish to raise taxes or propose spending cuts, the American people have a right to see that process unfold.” Two days later, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement sounding a similar note: “The work of this Committee will affect all Americans, and its deliberations should be open [to] the press, to the public and webcast.”
At this point, it’s hard to find anyone in Washington who believes the committee should not be transparent and open in its meetings. And here’s where Frenzel’s words have their relevance. He believes a committee of this nature, tasked with a challenge of this magnitude, should be given “space and breathing room that will help them get the job done.”
In an essay that begins by his drawing a historical parallel between the current search for a grand bargain and the grand bargain that resulted in the approval of the Constitution 235 years ago, he spells out his reasons why:
“The Framers operated behind locked doors and windows, with the press barred from entry to Independence Hall, and the Delegates sworn to secrecy. In so doing, they set a standard that their successors sometimes forget. They achieved their grand compromise in a series of closed meetings, secure in the knowledge that their work would be voted on publicly by all Delegates,” he wrote.
Frenzel argues that the experience of the framers remains relevant to the politics of today:
“In contentious issues, like the creation of the Constitution, a compromise on the budget, or comprehensive tax reform — strong positions must be abandoned for the success of the final, comprehensive solution. If early concessions are revealed, the process may be doomed.”
From there, Frenzel zeroes in on one of the concerns Americans have with Washington:
“As American politics have become more polarized, political activists at both ends of the spectrum have become less trusting of their representatives. The zealots of the polar constituencies — who might tolerate a final compromise which were to include concessions by their opponents — are highly intolerant of their own representatives ‘caving in’ on any of their strongly held positions as the negotiations proceed.”
Frenzel concludes with some frank advice:
“If we are going to rely on commissions to help us meet our most pressing fiscal challenges, we need to make sure they have the space and breathing room that will help them get the job done. ... Transparency and openness are wonderful for debates and for actual voting. However, history shows that they have been a real hindrance to successful bargaining and negotiating of tough issues, especially in today’s polarized political environment.”
Even though this advice was written months before the deficit reduction panel was formed, it is relevant to the deliberations this fall.
It’s also advice that runs counter to the conventional wisdom in Washington — which, when you think about it, is what wise men are supposed to provide and why Frenzel’s words are worth considering today.
Lou Zickar is editor of the Ripon Forum, a centrist Republican journal of political thought and opinion published by the Ripon Society.