American Government and Politics

Does Transparency Inhibit Political Compromise?

Jeffrey Harden University of Notre Dame
Justin Kirkland University of Virginia
Politicians and scholars contend that governmental transparency reforms constrain politicians' capacity to negotiate and compromise in the pursuit of policy goals. However, existing research primarily emphasizes only that governments are strategic in adopting these reforms; whether lawmakers actually incur the alleged costs of transparency remains an open question. We investigate this issue in the context of American state legislatures, many of which have become exempt from "sunshine laws" in recent decades. Legislators justify these exemptions by claiming that transparency impedes deal-making and coalition-building, producing gridlock. We leverage variation in the timing of sunshine law adoptions and exemptions to identify their effect on legislative productivity, polarization, partisanship, policy change, and budget delay. Our analyses refute legislators' argument for opacity; we report precisely-estimated negligible and contradictory effects of sunshine law exposure. We conclude that transparency does not inhibit political compromise. Legislative deliberation is equally or perhaps more effective under open governance requirements.