At the conclusion of World War I, Woodrow Wilson proposed the principle of "open covenants, openly arrived at" as a standard for international relationships. The concept has been little more than fodder for ridicule ever since. Indeed, the very phrase has come to symbolize that president's supposed fatal naivetÇ. Wilson's Fourteen Points notwithstanding, the nations of the earth have gone on drawing up treaties and doing their business in secret, saying one thing in public and doing something else in private, no matter the catastrophic results.
Even less so has the idea of candid and public handling of domestic affairs taken hold among Wilson's countrymen. Anybody with any experience in local, state, or federal governments knows that the real deals get cut behind closed doors and that what goes on in public debate is generally so much legislative window-dressing.
But Phil Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor who's about to begin his second year at the helm of Tennessee state government, seems determined to change all that, acting to fulfill both the spirit and the letter of Wilson's dictum.
Last year, the newly elected governor found that the state was $100 million in the hole, even after the enactment of an unprecedentedly large sales-tax increase the year before. Instead of gnashing his teeth or wringing his hands, Bredesen analyzed the situation and determined to do that which no prior Democratic governor (or Republican governor, either) had done -- slash state spending across the board. Except for public education or where judicial mandates prevented it, the governor insisted that each department slash its budget by 9 percent. Remarkably, even the Tennessee Department of Transportation, whose roadbuilding apparatus had always enjoyed sacred-cow status, came under the ax.
How was Bredesen able to enforce his will? First of all, he had the support of his fellow Democrats in the legislature, who in the preceding years had rallied only unevenly to support Republican governor Don Sundquist's abortive tax-reform efforts. And it didn't hurt that Bredesen's actions were in conformity with the traditional "cut-spending" rhetoric of the General Assembly's Republicans.
But the key to Bredesen's success in budget-cutting -- which guaranteed that the scalpel was wielded judiciously -- was his insistence on carrying on his budget negotiations, line by line, department by department, program by program, in public. No private pork-barreling, no back-room back-scratching. It was unprecedented. Open covenants, openly arrived at, indeed: Wilson would have been proud.
This week and next the governor is holding similar public hearings with officials of state departments to iron out the details of the budget he will present to the General Assembly in early 2004. (Citizens interested in checking them out on the Internet can do so at www.legislature.state.tn.us, then clicking, consecutively, on "House" and on "Governor's Budget Hearings.")
All this is taking place while Congress is rushing to conclude some year-end business in Washington -- including preparation of an energy policy and provision of prescription-drug coverage for seniors -- by the same old closed-door methods. We don't anticipate that what is now going on in Tennessee will become a model for national lawmaking, but we recommend it all the same.
Jackson Baker is a senior editor for the Flyer.