Fifty Three to Fifty Six: Open Caucuses to Public View

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Open Caucuses to Public View

By state Rep. Cory Mason, Freshman Assembly Democrat-Racine

From the Racine Journal Times on 3/14/07

Open Government. Everyone says they are for it. As Justice Brandeis put it in 1933, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” for corruption in government. This week is Sunshine Week, where we acknowledge the virtue of open government in our democracy.

Ironically, I am writing this during one part of our state government that is closed to the public: the “closed caucuses,” meetings which both political parties engage in during days the Legislature is in session.

I’ve only been in office for two months, but so far, session days in the state Assembly have three steps. First we meet in the Assembly chambers, take roll, and pass well-deserved and heartfelt resolutions honoring the memory of former legislators who have died and fallen soldiers who have given their lives for their country.

Next, the Assembly adjourns to split into two groups. The Republicans go into one room and the Democrats to another. These meetings are usually “closed” shortly after we start. In other words the public, the press, legislative staff, and anyone who is not a state representative has to leave the room. This is the longest part of the session day where the respective parties review each bill that will be addressed.

In these closed meetings the legislators in their respective parties devise strategy, debate the merits of the day’s bills, and employ shuttle diplomacy between the closed meetings to see if the two parties can reach consensus. Finally, after both political parties are done meeting, the Assembly comes back to order and votes on the issues of the day. This process goes much more quickly than the closed meetings – not surprising since the real debate has already taken place behind closed doors.

On Tuesday of this week, Legislators met for five hours in closed meetings before both parties were done. Our legislative activity on the floor took less than an hour with very little debate.It seems to me that if we are really committed to open government, we ought to open our respective meetings to the public.

So in recognition of Sunshine Week, I am announcing a bill that will be introduced to open these closed meetings to the bright light of public scrutiny. Some legislators argue that there are real advantages to the closed meetings: members can ask questions they are not comfortable asking in public, strategies are developed that help the parties operate more effectively, and legislators have a space to vent their frustrations and practice their speeches.

However, none of the advantages to these closed meetings are a reasonable trump to the public’s right to have access to the Legislature’s entire debate.The Legislature has agreed to have its deliberations televised by Wisconsin Eye, sort of a C-SPAN for the Wisconsin Legislature. But that investment could be a cruel hoax on citizens if the real debate occurs behind closed doors.I hope my colleagues will embrace Justice Brandies’ words about sunshine and join me in support of opening all of the Legislature’s deliberations to the public.

Cory Mason is a Democratic state Representative from Racine. He took office two months ago in January, 2007.

Cory Mason, pic from


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, brilliant idea. If you open the caucuses up you will find that that caucuses don't contain very much of interest.

Those things that occur behind closed doors will continue to take place behind closed doors.

This idea is as stupid as the Cheryl Albers Constitutional Amendment requiring the Supreme Court to deliberate in public.

If the argument is that municipal governments and school boards have very strict limitations on closed door meetings, then perhaps we need to find ways of relaxing that for some of their discussions.

Partisan sides deliberate between themselves in the open, in their legislative houses. That is what the public needs to have access to.

If Mason's proposal required open access to caucuses where one party held a substantial majority - say 80% or more - then it may make sense. Then you would have legislation decided by a vast majority in secret. That could be a problem.

When you have a close balance between the two sides, then all that a closed caucus determines is how to fight the opposition. Then the opposing sides do their work in public.

As for Albers and the Supremes; that is just plain stupid, but it shares the same silly Cory Mason spirit.

The decisions of the court are lengthy, written and published. The deliberations are an important time for developing opinions and opening that process to public view would be detrimental to the process.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Additional perspectives here:

(need to combine all into one address)

3:59 PM  

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