Thursday, January 7, 2010

You Won't See Me 2

Today's series is about transparency in government   In part one, I agreed with Ezra Klein that if C-SPAN televises the health care non-conference conference, the real negotiations will just move one more step indoors. 

The question now is whether this a sign that something is wrong with the culture of Washington, as David Sirota says in this lengthy diatribe?  Nope.  It's that something is wrong with the principle of transparency, or, I guess I want to say, transparency as a principle.  But before I can get to that, I need to go back to the value of transparency. Sirota's argument is basically that  that Members of Congress would never get away with what they do if only it was televised.  For him, the political world is divided between "insiders" and "outsiders," and the former have "an artificial monopoly over information, political comprehension and raw legislative leverage."  He continues:

These people do not inherently have these monopolies - and these "realities" are not Laws of Nature. These monopolies and "realities" are manufactured by this kind of propaganda, and the sooner we expose it for what it is - propaganda - the sooner those monopolies end and those "realities" change. 
Outside of the obvious fact (as Colbert pointed out) that there's already tons of transparency that no one pays any attention to, the problem with this argument is that the realities of health care have nothing to do with any kind of insider, secret, knowledge.  The basic structure of what's happening with health care has been brutally public from the very beginning.  Once again: none of the forty Republicans in the Senate want to vote for health care reform.  Some larger number of Democrats in the Senate (and a majority of Dems in the House) do want a liberal bill, looking more or less like what Obama campaigned on.  Up to half a dozen of the sixty Democrats are, for either personal ideological or electoral reasons, unwilling to vote for the kinds of bills that most Democrats in Congress want.  Another dozen or so Democratic Senators are unwilling, probably for pure electoral reasons, to vote for a bill that only gets liberal support.  And add all that up, and you get the bill that passed the Senate with exactly sixty votes.

In other words, while Sirota suspects that insiders have some advantage when they "get to see the inner workings of the opaque legislative process," the reality of the situation is that outsiders who pay attention are perfectly able to see what's going on, whether or not it's on C-SPAN.  That's not to say that the details being negotiated right now aren't important -- they are -- but to say that in these negotiations, the players cannot escape from the parameters set by the hard realities of where the votes are.  And, moreover, where the votes are is in turn set by winners and losers of elections, and by the coalition-building and choices that went into those elections. 

So it's not that outsiders don't matter.  Outsiders matter very much; they just are, well, outsiders.  Outsiders select their representatives, and they keep a loose or tight rein on them, and their representatives report back to them, explaining what they did.  That doesn't make the outsiders uninvolved.  They can be extremely involved; they just aren't going to do the actual negotiating themselves.  And that's going to be true whether there are cameras around or not. 

But that's not the end of the story.  For that, see part three.

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