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The problems and promises of transparency

I'm conflicted over C-SPAN's request to televise all negotiations related to the merging of the House and Senate bills. On the one hand: Transparency! How can you be against that? Particularly compelling is their promise to "archive all of this video for future generations to study in the C-SPAN video archives." That's a serious public resource.

On the other hand, if you open the negotiations to C-SPAN, the result isn't just that C-SPAN televises the negotiations. It's that the negotiations change. No one says a word that could be taken out of context and used against them at some future point. What you'll get are kabuki negotiations in which legislative leaders make carefully planned statements about the awesomeness of the bill while staff works in a back room to haggle out whether, say, we should tax rich folks or expensive insurance plans. What C-SPAN is offering isn't transparency. It's the illusion of transparency.

And maybe that's good enough, or better than nothing, or something. On the other hand, there's real value in occasionally letting legislators work through this stuff outside the glare of the cameras. The fact that government should be held to higher standards than other institutions doesn't mean the people in it work differently than the people at other institutions. No business would decide to televise or webcast all of its meetings, and for obvious reasons. Televising all of the government's meetings means, in practice, that more of those meetings are informal and there's less assurance of broad representation.

Update: I'd also recommend Igor Volsky's take.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 5, 2010; 3:31 PM ET
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The time for transparency has passed. Obama should have defined the debate at the outset in terms of the need for utility-like regulation of the health industry, as in every other developed nation. The Massachusetts experiment is barely working in Massachussets and will not scale to the country as a whole.

Posted by: bmull | January 5, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

It's not C-Span that is making this an issue, it was then candidate Obama who used C-Span as a proxy for openness. Brian Lamb is smart and a bit of a wonk showman and he's chosen his moment well.

So what if you let Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid, and President Obama read over and discuss the 11 pages of differences between the bills? On Day 1, close the meeting, do the real negotiating off camera (as has been done everywhere, in all circumstances, for all time) and on Day 2 announce the resolution of the 11 pages of disputes. 'Virgin births' and 'parachute drop' provisions aren't going to look good but those are exactly the kind of provisions candidate Obama was trying to block when he ran.

I'm a big supporter of the President but he made his own bed on this issue. It's better to just keep the promise in whatever warped way it's playing out. Brian Lamb isn't exactly the bogeyman and Obama is good on the TeeVee.

Honestly, you could probably put cameras in with the staff making sausage on the side and the press wouldn't pick up on anything foul. They need personalities to drive their beloved stories of intrigue.

Posted by: jamusco | January 5, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

The president made clear his promise on this issue and he needs to stick with it. Democrats have large majorities due in part to these promises made during a campaign. They owe it to the American people to try to keep their promises.

They can't blame Republicans for obstruction on this promise.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 5, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

It's not clear that the way the bill gets resolved is ever viewable via a camera. It seems the bill gets resolved by someone going to Joe L and talking for a few hours and then the oracle says either yes or no based on something.

The fact that the President raised this (naively) as jamusco noted might provide an opening to transparency of a sort. CSPAN is not necessarily the proper venue here, but there's lots of places where those involve can defend the various provisions and why they are important.

I would be most interested in having the administration commit to their view of the different bills. After all, it was the President who called for transparency and he is the single most opaque player at this point.

Posted by: windshouter | January 5, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

A few months ago (when I was a complete neophyte to politics and congressional matters), I would have whole-heartedly (naively)supported C-Span's proposal.

Now, however, I agree with Volsky. After months of observing the monumental waste of time (at no small cost to taxpayers) that is perpetrated by our elected officials (at best entertaining theatrics)for C-Span cameras, I'm convinced this would simply add another layer of theatrics and more delays while the real work still goes on behind closed doors, and would achieve nothing in the way of true transparency.

Now (less neophyte, more cynical and paranoid), I find myself even questioning the motive behind C-Span's request ... is it truly altruistic? It'll certainly be interesting to watch who comes down on each side of the argument, their rationales, and how it all plays out.

Posted by: onewing1 | January 5, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I agree that televised negotiations would likely result in political theater, but shouldn't we try to start somewhere?

It seems to me that, if it makes elected officials and their staff work twice as hard, because they choose to not disclose their actual reasons for pushing for a certain provision, then I say let them.

If transparency with regards to negotiations becomes the norm in Washington, there's at least a slight possibility of some changing of ways. Sure, most likely they'll figure out ways to get around it, but it's still a possibility.

I understand the superfluous nature of C-Span's request, but I'm failing to see the actual downsides to it.

Posted by: rylock | January 5, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

the question shouldn't be framed that C-SPAN=transparency and nothing else does. It'd still be transparent if the transcripts were released months from now; just not immediate transparency. A box of documents at the national archives or read into the congressional record is no less transparent, less immediate, sure, but less vulnerable to outside influence and delay.

Posted by: ThomasEN | January 5, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

What really irks me is that if we had a tenth of the transparency, debate and process in the PATRIOT ACT and the Medicare Rx bill, those monstrosities would not have passed as they are. I do not want to hear about transparency from people who never said a word about the rush to pass the PATRIOT Act or the criminal abuse of power that was employed to pass the RX Bill.

If hypocrisy was toxic, there would not be one living Republican in Congress.

Posted by: RinOregon | January 5, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of the merits of televising the conference, the reason Obama ran on transparency is because he is a true believer in transparancy. He didn't do it because there was some marginal number of additional votes to be gained that would have tipped the scales in his favor. He ran on it because that has been part of parcel of his political history, from writing a bill to require videotaping of police interrogations as a state senator to putting up a publicly searchable database of government spending and earmarks as a US Senator, in collaboration with that nutcase Sen. Coburn.

It's just who he is.

Posted by: tyromania | January 6, 2010 12:11 AM | Report abuse

Most Americans oppose the proposed healthcare reform legislation. (See: And for reasons well beyond transparency.

Insurance premiums may increase to $221 from $107 for the average 25 year-old healthy male and to $763 from $536 for the average working family of four according to some published reports.

One reason people will pay more is because of the kinds of side deals that were cut to win votes in Congress.

For example, there is a special “carve-out” that exempts some of the largest insurers (such as the Blue Cross/Blue Shield “not-for-profit” companies) from paying their share of the cost of the reform – even though these are some of the most profitable insurance companies, they operate the same way as the other insurance companies and they pay millions to their top executives. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan proposed this special exemption that benefits his home state Michigan Blue Cross/Blue Shield. His top campaign contributor over the past five years is Michigan Blue Cross/Blue Shield, according to

By exempting Michigan Blue Cross/Blue Shield and other “non-profits” from paying the health care tax, consumers in other states who are insured by “for-profit companies” will pay even higher insurance costs, especially in states like Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, New York, Connecticut and Nevada, among many others where most insurers are for-profits.

We should all be sure to tell Congress that we want health care reform that’s done right. Do away with special deals like the Levin Carve-Out that raise costs on working families.

Posted by: CAHC | January 6, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

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