The Fiscal Cliff Farce: Take The Debate Behind Closed Doors

January 4, 2013

Government, Politics

The recent Fiscal Cliff farce that was played out in public over the last several months reminded me by contrast of the way in which our founders successfully got to an agreement on the Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention. That agreement and compromise was obviously a much more difficult consensus to achieve than the decision on how to move through the Fiscal Cliff. Yet the founders were able to drive to some sort of consensus and compromise despite deep divisions and philosophical differences.

One of the ways they achieved this consensus was by taking the debate out of the public. They went behind closed doors and swore one another to secrecy during the months in which they debated the form and substance of the new Constitution. Delegates protected the secrecy of the proceedings even in personal letters they wrote to friends and loved ones during the convention. Even the detailed notes of the proceedings, which attendees such as Madison kept, were not published until fifty years after the event. It is only through those notes that we have a fuller picture of the to and fro and positions argued by the various delegates. But at the time, the proceedings were kept secret and that secrecy could arguably be part of what allowed them to achieve their consensus. Out of the limelight of the public, they could put out positions, retrench, give in, compromise and come to positions that met noones needs.

On the one hand, keeping the Constitutional Convention debates private seems to fly in the face of the founders’ commitment to republican rule. After all, they were drafting a constitution that was attempting to recognize and codify the rights of states and states in the newly envisioned Federal government. Though they had not yet included the first amendment protecting the freedom of the press, they were already committed to representation of the people and input by the people who were being represented.

On the other hand, the founders grasped the destructive side effects of carrying out debate in public. They understood the posturing that occurs if a wider audience knew of every position held by every candidate. They also understood that compromise was more possible behind closed doors and out of the public eye. In fact, reading Madison’s notes of the convention shows that individual members and positions changed positions over time in response to the discussion.

It seems worth asking whether we should try something similar. It is clear that all the parties to the debate are posturing for the public and that posturing make true compromise difficult.


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