C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb is challenging Democrats to keep their campaign promise and “open all important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media.” “President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system,” Lamb says in a letter to Congress. “Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.”
At first glance, Lamb’s request sounds reasonable, even righteous. After all, C-SPAN is grounded in the belief that transparency produces superior legislation. And maybe a certain level of transparency does. But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009, filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.
The C-SPAN letter itself betrays this reality. “Since the initial introduction of America’s Affordable Health Care Act of 2009, in the House and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the Senate, C-SPAN has televised literally hundreds of hours of committee hearings, mark ups and floor debate on these bills for the public to see,” it reminds us. On the whole, C-SPAN’s coverage informed and entertained the viewer. But did it improve the underlying bill?
Consider the Senate floor debate. Rather than filling the 24 days of televised discussions with constructive and informative amendments, Democrats and Republicans recycled charts and talking points like re-usable shopping bags. Lawmakers spent days debating the Medicare cuts they supported in years past, denouncing scientific research, and introducing sense of the Senate resolutions promising to provide and protect America’s most active constituency — seniors. Senators from both party played to the cameras. Grandstanding, launching unnecessary rhetorical attacks, but barely tweaking the bill on the Senate floor. The real substantive change, if you’ll recall, came in the form of Reid’s amendment (and when he merged the two Senate bills). At times, the rhetoric on the floor sounded like cable news chatter. The real discussions and compromises — Sens. Lieberman’s and Nelsons objections, for instance — were reserved for private discussions; incidentally, the two Senators didn’t appear on the Senate floor until the 60-vote deal was struck.
It’s no exaggeration to claim that health care reform is only possible because of the ritualistic ping-pong back and forth that occurs through private conversations. Lawmakers eschew substantive televised negotiations because the reality of politics doesn’t square with the promises of the campaign trail; negotiations give lawmakers a conciliatory hue that’s unwelcome in the current political climate of machismo.
The introduction of cameras into the daily White House press briefings, for instance, hasn’t produced a better understanding of administration policy or more informative media coverage. Rather, it created an additional opportunity for political theater and posturing. “It has turned into a theater of the absurd,” Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, told the New York Times. “Reporters can be perfectly civil and launch good, hard-hitting questions” in private…then in the briefing room two minutes later, “they turn into barbarians,” President George W. Bush’s first press secretary Ari Fleischer added. In the modern media environment, even small inconsequential events or statements are often transformed into meta narratives or political attacks that can alter the behavior of politicians in ways that serve to undermine the legislative process, the article claims, noting the atmosphere of mutual mistrust that characterizes the interactions between the public, lawmakers, and the press.
Turning the conference committee into another Senate floor debate won’t improve health reform legislation. The televised conference hearings will become a drawn out theatrical sideshow — the real discussions will still occur behind closed doors.
The public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote, but when it comes to legislating, transparency is overrated. Changing Washington’s political culture requires far deeper systematic reforms than C-SPAN television. The hard politics isn’t pretty enough for TV.
Ezra Klein is “conflicted over C-SPAN’s request to televise all negotiations related to the merging of the House and Senate bills” but points out that “What C-SPAN is offering isn’t transparency. It’s the illusion of transparency.”