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The C-SPAN mistake

Matt Yglesias explains why we don't televise all negotiations.

Think about a family negotiation over whose house you spend the holidays at, or who goes to watch Billy’s soccer game on Saturday. At the end of the day, wouldn’t everyone be worse off if the whole extended clan had the right to watch the negotiation on C-SPAN? More to the point, wouldn’t knowledge that the proceedings were going to be seen by others bias the negotiation. If your husband says “you don’t even like your cousin John” then you more or less have to protest and insist that you do too like him and any proposal predicated on the idea that you don’t like him needs to be rejected.

And that’s how it would go in negotiations. I think people think that if there were more transparency, the dread special interests would have less hold over the process. But I suspect the real result would be the reverse. What happens when you reach a compromise is both sides agree to sell some folks out in pursuit of some bigger objective they care more about. But in a transparent process, nobody would be willing to even hypothetically entertain the idea of selling anybody out.

Of course, if the whole clan was watching, the husband would never mention your antipathy to your cousin John. And that's the bigger problem: Hard issues never get discussed at all. You'd have some private talk and then some fake public negotiations where you followed a predetermined conversational route to the ending you settled on behind closed doors.

At the end of the day, everybody knows this, and the real outcome of Obama's promise to televise everything on C-SPAN is that no one will ever make that promise again. The second-order outcome is that people now realize C-SPAN can be effectively wielded against the majority party, and C-SPAN is willing to be effectively wielded against the majority party, and this is probably the beginning of the network's politicization.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 3, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Classic "Prisoner's Dilemma" - political courage doesn't pay (at least that is the thinking) unless both parties buy in. Except here the prisoners are public.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 3, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

But Obama won election partially based on that promise! It does no good to conservatives after the fact to renounce that promise as stupid. To conservatives, the damage has already been done.

It was a stupid promise. These negotiations should not be on C-SPAN. But the election has already happened and conservatives don't get much comfort knowing that they have to live with a President Obama for another 3-7 years in part because of a stupid promise that gave the American people the wrong impression about governance being completely different under an Obama administration.

Posted by: lancediverson | February 3, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

"The real outcome of Obama's promise to televise everything on C-SPAN is that no one will ever make that promise again"

Of course, this would be a non-issue, if he had never made that promise. He made the promise on 8 separate occasions. When it didn't happen, it appears that he was lying then, or has something to cover up now. He makes the proponents of the legislation look secretive and sinister when they refuse to negotiate in the public eye.

It's the equivalent of handing the Republicans a big stick and asking them to beat him silly if he starts to achieve anything.

Again, I do think the blame rests less with Obama and more with the house and senate, but the C-SPAN pledge, in retrospect, comes off like Gary Hart challenging the press to follow him in the middle of his presidential campaign.

As far as C-SPANs willingness to be wielded against the majority party goes, this wasn't Brian Lamb's idea. It was Obama's. They couldn't have been wielded by anybody, if Obama hadn't made the promise, and done it repeatedly. C-SPANs behavior in this situation was completely understandable and entirely reasonable. You'd expect C-SPAN to think the broadcast of every government proceeding was a good idea, and not be particularly happy that, after repeated promises, the public airing of healthcare negotiations didn't happen.

Speaking of C-SPAN, C-SPAN simulcasts NASA Space Shuttle mission launches and landings live, using the footage and audio from NASA TV. Or they used to. Back when we had a space program. Before Obama cut it.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse


Ezra, are you never going to comment on last night's season premiere of Lost on ABC? You do know it's the last season, right?

Come on. What are you trying to hide?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

And don't forget about how shameful the Democrats like Obama and Pelosi would look when they cowtow to special interests like SEIU for the whole world to see....that is clearly not what Obama meant when he said they would televise the whole thing on C-Span...he had his fingers crossed!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 3, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Do you think the public would be served if we saw intimate conversations between how the Trial Lawyer's lobby specifically directs Pelosi and every word she chooses in the bill.

Democrats like Ezra Klein are so quick to pretend that only Republicans serve "special interests" when the fact remains that Republicans payoffs to their special interests is much much more above board than the Democrats' payoffs.

Republicans like to help corporate America succeed.

Democrats like to see Union's destroy the long term business opportunities of successful American corporations and even turn up their noses at the prospects of things like profit sharing.

Democrats like to see Trial Lawyers leverage loopholes to make millions and run fledgling businesses down the drain.

Democrats love to see environmental zealots hold responsible citizens hostage and squeeze them until they cry uncle.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 3, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

But Obama can cure this by having at least some negotiations on C-SPAN. I've advocated for his sitting down with party leadership, some health care experts, and a handful of legislators who are willing to negotiate in good faith from each party, and having him just broadly hash out where there is consensus and where there is not. Then have a couple of follow-up meetings on C-SPAN.

I don't think people expect that literally everything is going to be on C-SPAN. But I think it would actually really alter the popular perception of the process if there were nationally televised footage of Obama sitting down with Republicans, just listening to them and finding areas of agreement. Bring the experts to do your fact-checking during the session.

If there is footage of Obama on the television talking with people and hashing out the bill, I think that will satisfy people. Nobody expects to see the entire legislative process unfold on television. But at least being able to get a peek at it would help. And I think it would be a really positive image for everyone to see Republicans and Democrats working together; you saw how happy everyone was after Obama visited the House GOP caucus.

Posted by: jeffwacker | February 3, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

"The real outcome of Obama's promise to televise everything on C-SPAN is that no one will ever make that promise again"

Yeah right!?! The real outcome is a Democrat won't tell big lies just to get elected!!!

Yeah that's the ticket! : )

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 3, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I specifically want to see the conversations that PELOSI/REID/OBAMA already had with the leadership of SEIU...something like, yeah we paid an enormous amount of money to get you elected so you damn well better figure out a way to exempt US from paying your silly Cadillac one can dare expect US to pay for THAT!!

If they manage to get THAT CLIP on C-SPAN, I think people will be happy that Obama stayed true to his word!!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 3, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Incorrectly presumes a parent-child relationship between lawmakers and the citizens they work for.

When legislators treat the social contract as if they're actually working for the *common* good (as in common to *everyone*) rather than the "greater" good, then they wouldn't have to hide the negotiations where they discuss which good is greatest.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 3, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Texas has Open Meetings Laws applicable to many governing bodies. Members are prohibited from discussing official business if a quorum is present unless they are attending a properly posted and public meeting. Members are also prohibited from cirmcumventing the Open Meetings laws by meeting in numbers of less than a quorum in order to discuss official business behind closed doors.

Of course, the legislature exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act.

But the law does create a certain awareness or mind set in the mind of public officials that their business should be conducted in such a way as to survive public scrutiny. And there's a lot to be said for that.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 3, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I agree with those posters who are blasting the administration over meeting behind closed doors with SEIU. Big Pharma as well. Obama may not be able to force Congressional Democrats to negotiate in public, but he can certainly require members of his own administration to fulfill the promises he made.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 3, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Your points are well taken, Ezra. But even if it was a tactical mistake by Obama to make the transparency promise in the first place, Americans still might reasonably be opposed to the backroom deals he, Pelosi and Reid cut with health care lobbyists and wavering members within their party. Transparency is one thing; bribes or the appearance of impropriety are another.

Posted by: tbass1 | February 3, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

And by the way. Those Open Meetings laws apply to written communications as well. And all emails between members of a governing body are subject to disclosure under another set of Sunshine Laws called the Open Records Act.

It doesn't keep everybody honest, but it helps. These laws are powerful tools for good government.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 3, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

*But Obama won election partially based on that promise!*

Seriously? Conservatives believe this? I never heard conservatives care about this issue when they were in power or even care so much about that Obama thought it was a good idea during the campaign. It was only when we realized, "That is actually not a good or useful idea" that Republicans started talking about it. Why? Not because they thought it was important, but because they thought it was something they could use to drive the media narrative.

The consequence of bad backroom deals is that everyone sees the deal that was made when the bill comes to light, making the bill unpopular.

Posted by: constans | February 3, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you that part of politics is, and needs to be, a dirty, backroom business.

But - I thought President Obama was a Senator then? He knew how Congress works, I assume? He said it _eight times_? Which are you saying: that he was an idiot, or a liar? I personally don't think he's an idiot.

We get so used to calling politicians liars when we really mean, He's wrong and as I know it he must know it too because he can't be so stupid as to disagree with me, we often don't notice when one of them is really truly lying.

Actually, though, I don't think this was a flagrant lie. I think that his followers drifted into messianic thinking and he drifted with them. "_Would that it could be_ that politics could be pure and above-board. We can fix everything; we shall!"

Posted by: MikeR4 | February 3, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

"At the end of the day, everybody knows this, and the real outcome of Obama's promise to televise everything on C-SPAN is that no one will ever make that promise again. The second-order outcome is that people now realize C-SPAN can be effectively wielded against the majority party, and C-SPAN is willing to be effectively wielded against the majority party, and this is probably the beginning of the network's politicization."

C-SPAN will only be a weapon against the majority part if the minority party is willing to PUSH hard for it. They first have to get the majority to even contemplate televised negotiations, then get C-SPAN to insist on a role. This takes some pretty heavy leadership and advocacy -- qualities that one party has in spades and the other simply seems to lack.

This isn't a "majority/minority" issue, it's a reflection of the different dominant attitudes in the Democratic and Republican parties.

Posted by: NS12345 | February 3, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

I don't see what the problem is with transparency on this bill. We know exactly what each compromise was. We know what it took to get Nelson and Landrieu on board. We know about the PhRMA deal. We know about the aborted union negotiations on the excise tax.

The process has been incredibly transparent. We've seen how the bill is changed at every step of the way. Taking "Negotiations Theater" out of the broader media and having it acted out in front of C-SPAN adds nothing for the public.

Posted by: etdean1 | February 3, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

shorter Ezra: the public should just hear the administration's talking points in the legislation, not the backroom deals involved.

Posted by: goadri | February 3, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

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