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Time to Hide the Sausage-Making
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Time to Hide the Sausage-Making

Too much transparency is unhealthy for our politics.

Rep. Matt Gaetz answers questions outside the U.S. Capitol after successfully leading a vote to remove Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House October 3, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)


So, we spiked my Los Angeles Times column for The Dispatch this week because events moved so fast—Kevin McCarthy’s out as speaker, in case you haven’t heard—that there was no time to update it. 

But let me start where I left off. I think it’s a useful exercise to ask how things would have gone yesterday if the vote on the motion to vacate (MTV)—i.e. fire McCarthy—was done via secret ballot. (That’s how they did it for the half-century after 1789.)

I assume Gaetz would still have wanted his MTV and would have gotten his vote because of the stupid decision made last January to lower the threshold for the maneuver to a single member. McCarthy’s decision to use Democratic votes to prevent a government shutdown would trigger a Gaetzian attack no matter what. And I suspect he could have gotten most of the eight votes to remove McCarthy. Heck, it’s possible the GOP vote tally for removal could have been much larger (would Elise Stefanik vote to keep McCarthy on the island if no one knew how she voted?). But I suspect the Democratic tally to keep McCarthy in office would be larger than zero. That’s not because many—or any—Democrats like McCarthy all that much (I don’t mean personally, he’s a great schmoozer). But I think a good number of them hate Gaetz more and don’t want to reward his schtick. The problem for moderate Democrats is that they’re almost as afraid of their zealots as moderate Republicans are afraid of theirs. Publicly voting for McCarthy to remain speaker is a surefire way to get primaried by a Squad type. 

And for understandable reasons. 

I mean, for starters, McCarthy is pushing to impeach Joe Biden. He sycophantically supports Donald Trump and has said all manner of ridiculous things about January 6. Whatever Republicans may think of all of that, I think I’m on solid footing when I say that most ideologically committed or super-partisan Democrats don’t like that stuff. 

But I can imagine that there are a good number of Problem Solver Caucus types and other Democratic moderates who could have been convinced to reject Gaetz’s gambit, as a way to send a signal that the fringes shouldn’t run the show. 

Indeed, rewarding McCarthy for using Democratic votes to keep the government open by rejecting the MTV makes a lot of political sense to me. Outside of the primary and partisan media ecosystems, acting like a grown-up is a good look for both parties. Base voters may hate bipartisanship—i.e. “collaboration with the enemy”—but centrist voters (who just happen to be the voters a party needs to be a majority party) tend to like it. Also, having McCarthy feel indebted to Democrats for keeping his job could come in handy in all sorts of ways. As a matter of basic good governance, I think a good number of liberals think it would be better to have a Republican speaker indebted to some Democrats than one indebted to the House Freedom Caucus.

Given the ridiculous nature of our politics, therefore, asking any specific Democrat to risk their job to save McCarthy is a ridiculous ask. But a secret ballot would reduce the costs of voting to keep McCarthy for individual Democrats while retaining most of the benefits.

Also, there is—or was!—a strong institutionalist case for not letting Gaetz succeed, and not just for the axiomatically obvious reason that anything that rewards Matt Gaetz’s schtick is presumptively a bad idea. (Oh, and let me be clear: I agree with most of what Gaetz was saying on the floor yesterday. Congress should return to regular order. It should vote up-or-down on individual spending bills. Governing by continuing resolution is terrible. But Gaetz is a fraud. He has no interest in actual good governance and regular order; he—and people like him—are the reason why speakers have found it necessary to avoid regular order. This clown without makeup wanted Donald Trump to be speaker which, I think all reasonable can agree, is not something people who care about the proper functioning of Congress would welcome. As unfit as Trump is for the presidency, he’s arguably more unfit for the job of speaker—even if the stakes would be lower.)

We’re so used to crazy politics these days, it’s easy to overlook how radical (and stupid) yesterday was. Since 1839, when the speaker vote stopped being secret, voting for a member of your party to be speaker was one of the most fundamental requirements of party loyalty in American politics. The last time a member of one party voted for a speaker from the other party was Jim Traficant in 2000 (Traficant’s last run for office—after he was expelled in 2002—was from prison). He voted for Denny Hastert, and in response, the Democrats removed him from every committee assignment, making him the first rank-and-file member without committee assignments in nearly a century. In the 116th Congress, Democratic Caucus rules required all Democratic members to vote for the candidate who had majority support. Historically, even if you planned on switching parties, it was considered obligatory to vote for your party’s speaker candidate. In 1983, Phil Gramm voted for Tip O’Neill. Two days later, he quit the Democratic Party, and Congress, to run as a Republican for his own seat. I dare anyone to suggest that Phil Gramm is a RINO squish. He just thought it was wrong to betray voters who voted for Gramm when he was a Democrat. 

I think the post-ouster spin wars are both hilarious and depressing. A lot of conservatives—including people who’ve done yeoman work to make Matt Gaetz-style politics popular on the right—are suddenly denouncing Gaetz for working with Democrats to dethrone McCarthy. Analytically, they’re right in a very real sense—I wrote as much in my LAT column. Gaetz attacked McCarthy for working with Democrats to keep the government open. But Gaetz worked with Democrats to get rid of McCarthy. 

Where I think that argument becomes silly is when the talking point becomes, “Democrats ousted McCarthy and used Gaetz to do it.” McCarthy himself made that argument. So did Ari Fleischer (R-Riyadh): “Unbelievable. The Democrats, with the help of Matt Gaetz and a handful of GOP Members, just ousted the Republican Speaker of the House. What a mess. This is so foolish. Why would anyone want to be Speaker of the House.” So did Fox and the NRCC

Again, historically, parties do not vote for a speaker of the other party. Yesterday, Jake Tapper asked progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal why moderate Democrats didn’t act to save McCarthy, if only to prevent Gaetz from winning and to reward McCarthy for doing the right thing on the shutdown. As I said, I think that would have been a good thing for the Democrats to have done. (Heck, if a bunch of Dems simply hadn’t showed up, McCarthy would have survived.) Jayapal—of whom I am no fan—had a good reply: “Five Republicans could come over right now and help us to elect Hakeem Jeffries as speaker.” Imagine the response from the right if that happened, and you can see why it was a non-starter. 

It’s a bit like saying, “I know Gaetz pushed McCarthy into a bear pit, but the bears didn’t have to eat him. The bears worked with Gaetz to feed on McCarthy’s flesh!” It’s technically true. But in this political environment, the blame is squarely with the people who did the pushing. If Republicans rejected the culture of losing that rewards the Gaetzes and punishes serious politicians, they might have a large enough majority where McCarthy wouldn’t need Democratic votes to stay in power. But the hotheads would rather have very narrow majorities—or even be in the minority—because that empowers them. Heck, Rep. Matt Rosendale admits that he literally “prayed” for a small GOP majority. 

Turn off the cameras.

But let’s get back to secrecy. 

One of the minor ironies of our politics is that the people most likely to bleat about how America is a “constitutional republic not a democracy” are the least committed to actual, small-R republican government. Republican government expects leaders to make hard decisions for the greater good of the constitutional order, not be remote-control political drones fueled by populist passion. And it’s almost impossible to make hard decisions with everyone looking over your shoulder every moment. Try to cook a meal for a large group of people with every single diner shouting at you about how much of each ingredient you should use.

Because we live in a populist age, we think that our elected leaders need to be under a magnifying glass at all times. We think that transparency is a cure for all the problems of our government, because government is some giant insidious conspiracy against us. This is ridiculous. I’m all for transparency of results. Judge the meal when it’s on the plate, not when it’s on the stove.

Government has every obligation to tell us what it’s doing. But politics—which is fundamentally about negotiation between different coalitions and interests—is impossible to conduct in broad daylight at all times. The cliché that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” may be true. But if you take that metaphor seriously, you need to consider that sometimes the last thing you need is more disinfectant. If you killed all the “good bacteria” in your body, you might die. You’d certainly be very sick. Horse-trading and deal-cutting is the good bacteria of politics, and you can’t do it when everyone is watching you, particularly when everyone watching thinks horse-trading and deal-cutting are the problem, not the solution. 

Let’s suppose, for example, that America is $33 trillion in debt—because it is. Let’s also suppose that what our politicians need to do is figure out how to get our fiscal house in order—because that is what they need to do. If some commission held negotiations in public, live on C-SPAN, it would be virtually impossible to work out a deal. Union bosses and AARP would be watching, and the instant someone said, “Let’s trim the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security or federal workers,” the special interests would be threatening to sew a live weasel into the abdomens of the commissioners. The first Republican to suggest tax hikes would find Grover Norquist on his front lawn with a bullhorn.

But if the negotiations were held in secret, the negotiators could at least work out a deal on paper that involved sacrifices from everybody. The public could still see the finished product, but at least the politicians would be able to explain the benefits or necessity of the proposed compromises in a broader context. 

The Constitutional Convention was literally a smoke-filled room. If C-SPAN had covered it in real time, we’d probably still have the Articles of Confederation—if America survived the War of 1812. 

I don’t know why this is such a controversial observation. Bosses don’t discuss raises in front of their employees, parents don’t have every important conversation about their kids in front of their kids, coaches don’t hash out who should start or be cut in front of all the players. It’d be entertaining, in a sick and weird way, if every doctor and psychiatrist had a live stream of their every conversation with their patients, but I think we can all understand why that would be a bad idea. But for some reason we think government should be as transparent as possible.

The problem, as Yuval Levin writes, is that “when an institution becomes too thoroughly transparent, it becomes indistinguishable from the open public space around it, and so it is simply another arena for public speech rather than a structure for meaningful action.”

Matt Gaetz—who, let the record show, I’ve been right about from the get-go—famously believes that being a cable news gargoyle is the very essence of “governing.” “If you aren’t making news”—defined as saying attention-grabbing nonsense—“you aren’t governing.” As clownish and demented as I think that is, he has a point—because we live in clownish and demented times. When Congress ceases to be the place where politics happens—i.e. negotiations, compromises, legislating etc.—and simply becomes a platform for performative theatrics, it’s easy to see how people might not see the difference between the House floor and Hannity’s and/or Rachel Maddow’s studios. And when politics ceases to be about policy and becomes about which party is more pure in its opposition to the other party, you get the nonsense we saw yesterday. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.