Thursday, January 7, 2010

You Won't See Me 1

I hope everyone has seen Ezra Klein's boffo performance on Colbert last night.  Well done!

One of the topics was transparency, and Brian Lamb's offer to have C-SPAN show the House/Senate negotiations over health care -- the non-conference conference.  Ezra addressed this a few days ago, as did Igor Volsky, with both coming out against transparency.  Turns out I have quite a bit to say about this, so I'll break it into pieces.  In this part, I'll tackle the practical effect of televising negotiations. 

Here, Ezra is exactly correct: the televised version would rapidly become, in his words, "kabuki negotiations," with the real negotiating still being done elsewhere.  Ezra refers to the floor debate, but I think a better comparison is to committee mark-ups.  Those meetings are televised, and real work does do on...but it's not unusual at all for the committee to reach a temporary impasse, and the concerned Members of Congress agree to work out their differences away from the table.  To some extent that's about saving everyone else's time, but to a large extent it's just much harder to strike deals in public.

Now, why is that?  Ezra said on Colbert that if we had a grown-up political culture, it might be possible to do these things in public.  He has a point -- there are plenty of people circling over the negotiators, eager to find things to take out of context -- but I think it has more to do with the nature of negotiations.  Plea bargains aren't negotiated in open court. And some of that is certainly because we say things in negotiations that we don't really mean, or even aren't sure if we mean: "if I offer X, would you give me Y?".  There's nothing wrong with that, but we don't really want to broadcast it, even if our political culture was far more forgiving.  Supporters of X really don't want to hear that their interest was offered up for trade, even if it was posturing or a bluff, and negotiators intent on getting the best deal don't want to be distracted by wondering what various constituencies will think about what they're saying -- although they should, and do, have to know what those constituencies will think about the final product.

In other words, there are strong reasons to expect that whatever Obama may have promised on the campaign trail, some negotiations are going to be held behind closed doors.  What remains for the next post is whether that's an indication of something wrong with Washington, and also how we should take Obama's broken promise.

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