united states project

Cracking open Congress

We need better insider reporting about the "fiscal cliff"
December 7, 2012

We’ve just finished an election in which quantitative analysis provided far more accurate predictions than pundits and reporters, who frequently offered claims and analysis that were not informed by high-quality poll averages or basic political science. As a result, traditional journalists are licking their wounds and trying to re-evaluate how they can add value to campaign coverage.

Almost as quickly, however, the media’s focus has shifted from the election to the negotiations between President Obama and Congressional Republicans over how to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff”—a topic where polls and quantitative analysis have relatively little to offer. Reporters, by contrast, have a great deal to contribute—indeed, they are the best source of information we have on the terms of the debate between the parties and the structure of the dynamics within each caucus.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that there has been relatively little good reporting on the inside game in Washington, which is precisely where enterprising journalists with good sources can add value. Unlike elections, Congressional negotiations are a setting in which there are no good public indicators of the eventual outcome and the key players really do have valuable information about the likely outcome.

Of course, the details of the negotiations between leading Republicans and the White House are closely held, but reporters can do far more to explore the budgetary and policy constraints facing negotiators; the cleavages within the parties over the various proposals; the views of the process held by key party allies such as prominent interest groups and activists; and the lobbying efforts being mounted by outside groups with a stake in the outcome. All of these factors will shape the outcome of the negotiations as well as the likelihood that a deal could make it through both chambers of Congress and be signed into law.

One notable exception to the generally lackluster coverage is Thursday’s New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer reporting that House Speaker John Boehner retains broad support within his caucus—a claim that is very relevant to the negotiation process, which depends on Boehner’s ability to deliver the votes necessary to make a deal with the President. Of course, support for the Speaker could collapse if he made a deal that was not to House Republicans’ liking, but it seems Boehner’s standing is more secure than it previously appeared.

Similarly, Politico ran a useful story by Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan, and Carrie Budoff Brown Thursday night on the latest meeting between the White House congressional liaison and Republican leadership staff, which provides key information—if accurate—on how seriously various contingency plans are currently being taken by the GOP (not very seriously, at this point). The site’s hyper-focus on DC insiders can be grating when it comes to, say, publishing their birth announcements or hyping conventional wisdom about elections, but the detailed reporting Politico provides can be extremely valuable for understanding the legislative process.

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The same was not true, however, for a different article on Politico Thursday, which provides a useful counterpoint. The least informative “fiscal cliff” stories tend to offer credulous coverage of public posturing that is intended for media consumption and has no direct relevance to the negotiations. In this case, reporters Josh Gerstein and Byron Tau wrote a strange story about implausible demands by Senator Jeff Sessions, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and a few liberal watchdog groups that the negotiations be opened to the public. While the reporters do devote substantial space to critics of the proposal, they do not explore why Sessions and Norquist are making this demand beyond an elliptical comment about “those at either end of the political spectrum who fear their allies will abandon them behind closed doors.” Are Sessions and Norquist really concerned about being out of the loop on a deal? Or are they just seeking to draw media attention to the contrast with Obama’s previous calls for transparency? We can’t discern their inner thoughts, but additional reporting might at least provide additional context for readers.

Ultimately, the “fiscal cliff” negotiations underscore the fact that quantitative social science and journalism are complements, not substitutes. From the invisible primary to abuses of copyright law, many of the most interesting and important developments in American politics are difficult to publicly observe or quantify. The need for good reporting isn’t going away any time soon.

Follow me on Twitter @BrendanNyhan.

Related posts:

“The fiscal whatchamacallit”

“Rise Above, CNBC’s move into advocacy”

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.