Wednesday, February 3, 2010

You Won't See Me 4

Transparency in government is back in the news today, and Matt Yglesias has a typically excellent piece pointing out why sometimes its best for negotiations to take place behind closed doors.

I agree, as I said in a series of pieces last month, when it was last in the news (here's the first one) -- although I also think that  this one by John Podesta is correct in his defense of a process that produces political posturing for the cameras:
Critics have argued that the presence of cameras is likely to produce political posturing and grandstanding by politicians. And indeed, with the cameras rolling, Republicans have said health care reform is a bigger threat than terrorism, claimed that seniors would be told to “drop dead,” and even called the President a liar. But I’m glad cameras were there to capture those demeaning comments. They have helped all Americans gain a better understanding of the unwillingness of some on the right to engage in a rational debate.
I think that what's needed here is a little more nuance.  Podesta is right that it is generally a good thing for the mechanisms of government to be open to the public -- but Yglesias is right that some negotiations need to take place off-camera.  I think the balance between those two things isn't really a question of principle, but of representation -- politicians make or don't make openness part of their promises to constituents, and then keeping those promises is important if they are to maintain strong representational relationships with their constitutuents.

What's actually happened in Congress over the last few decades, however, is sort of an odd combination of openness and closed doors.  On the one hand, C-SPAN has put Congress on television, and the internet has made full text of bills available to all.  In these ways, Congress is far more open than it ever was.  But at the same time, the increased use of party within Congress has yielded the opposite result.  Post-committee adjustments to bills -- changes between a bill's public committee markup and the debut of that bill on the floor of the House or Senate -- have introduced a whole new step to legislating, and it's a step that usually occurs entirely behind closed doors.  The demise of conference committees has closed off public access to another critical step in the process (conference committees were hurt when Republican majorities decided to hold the real conference in private, then killed off by a combination of new and probably foolish rules that Democrats passed and, finally, Republican willingness to use the mechanics of conference committees as yet another opportunity for obstruction).  So while some things are far more transparent than they ever were, other steps are far less so, and I suppose that the contrast is a bit difficult for people to understand. 

The solution is surely not to broadcast every single back-room conversation.  Legislators need to have the freedom to negotiate in private.  But it would not be a terrible strain on the process to find some way to find some public way to enact the bargains that are made in these two stages -- post-committee adjustments, and whatever replaces the now defunct conference committees (one obvious way would be to actually bring back conference committees).  And if that doesn't happen, then those who promise openness in government are going to be called on it, and fairly so. 

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