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Televising the conference

January 9th, 2010, 04:01 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

I happened to catch Eric Boehlert of Media Matters on the “Montel Across America” radio show this morning, and wanted to address something that came up during the discussion interview.

Montel entered into the following exchange after playing clips of then-candidate Obama saying he’d opt for open, transparent and televised negotiations on the health care bill, including the conference committee on the bill:

WILLIAMS: How can you argue this? The President said it over and over and over again: this will be on C-SPAN. Now we get down to the short strokes, and it’s in the closed room.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, you know, I mean, Brian Lamb, the CEO of C-SPAN sent a letter over to the Congressional leaders asking that the reconciliation be televised, and things like that. And, you know, I think that’s an interesting and could be potentially a good idea. I don’t think it’s ever been done. We’ve never seen the reconciliation process between the House and Senate televised. And I guess the only point I’d make about what Obama was saying on the campaign — I don’t think he was talking about the reconciliation process. He was comparing the Clinton in ‘93, when sort of the White House, well, was accused of writing the legislation and leaving Congress out of it. I think, clearly, those comments from Obama on the campaign trail were talking about formulating the legislation. I certainly don’t think he was talking about when, you know, there’s a bill passed by the House and the Senate, they meet to sort of make ends meet — that that would be on C-SPAN. But he certainly opened the door to having a debate about a transparent process.

WILLIAMS: I mean, he opened that door, and you know, Igor Volsky was on a little earlier in the show today, from the Center for American Progress, and he made a good point about the fact that, yeah, you know, it’s good for the process in some ways. All it does though is help hamper the process and slow it down, because most of the politicians use it as a free opportunity to grandstand and politicize the process rather than actually utilize the process for what it was there for, which is to come up with a decent bill. But it does kind of, you know, come back and bite you. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror when you say eight times, I’m gonna be transparent, I’m gonna be transparent on health care, on health care, on health care, on health care. When you do it eight times, the public may expect you to follow through with what you said.

BOEHLERT: Yeah, and when you talk about C-SPAN a lot, and when C-SPAN comes up and says, oh by the way, we want to air the reconciliation process — so, yeah, there’s always things you say on the campaign trail which can come back to haunt you. I would argue that this is not as direct as some critics are trying to make it. Again, I don’t think anyone was ever discussing the reconciliation process. And again, I don’t think that has ever been televised in the history of C-SPAN. It certainly wasn’t televised when Republicans were running Congress. And I think there is something to be said for once you do televise it. This reconciliation process, in any bill it’s difficult and complicated. For health care, it’s even more difficult and complicated. And the idea that you’re going to televise it and then make the process somehow any better — there’s an argument to be made that that will just complicate things. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that all transparency is a good thing in government.

OK, I’ve got some issues with this. But because I’ve said a number of times now that when the question deals with Congressional procedure, the answer is almost always “yes and no,” you won’t be surprised to learn that the answer is the same in this case, too.

First of all, the minutia: the conference process is not the same thing as reconciliation. We’ve been over this. Though a conference reconciles competing versions of a bill, “reconciliation” also refers to a specific budgetary procedure that’s also come up a lot in the context of the health insurance reform bill, and it just confuses things needlessly to refer to the conference process as the reconciliation process.

With that out of the way, we could come to the question of whether or not candidate Obama meant to include the conference process in his definition of the “negotiations process.” On the one hand, I hope so, because it’s really not helpful in transparency terms to say that the preliminary stages of the process will be open, but the rewrite will be closed. Conference is often where the rubber meets the road, and to exclude it — without explicitly saying so — from your definition isn’t exactly fair.

On the other hand, I guess I hope that Obama didn’t include the conference process in his working mental definition of the negotiations process, because the President, while naturally a powerful player in the process, really has no business dictating legislative procedure to the Congress. One branch per person, please.

But to me, at least for the moment, that’s kind of a lesser point too. Basically, I’ve come to expect overpromising and blurring the lines on the campaign trail. That’s probably part of why I dislike the primary campaigns so much. It seems a waste of time to me to fight with one another so intensely over the contents of campaign position papers, when I know so much of it is going straight out the window when it gets to Congress, anyway.

That does, however, bring me to the other point, which is the one where I pivot to the “yes and no” answer.

Has there ever been a Congressional conference committee televised on C-SPAN? Yes there has. As a matter of fact, C-SPAN televised the February 2009 conference committee meeting on the stimulus bill, and you can watch it on the C-SPAN web site. And if you do, you’ll hear Harry Reid say that there hasn’t been an open conference like that for 15 years.

So, “yes and no.” Yes, there have been televised conferences before. And no, it doesn’t happen very often and never happened when Republicans were in charge, as Boehlert points out.

But there’s more. Go ahead and watch the whole conference, but you’ll never see any of the negotiations. Why not? Because they weren’t conducted in that room. They were conducted elsewhere, and then the conferees came into a nice conference room with a big, broad table and some TV cameras in it, and proceeded to read speeches to each other — Democrats praising the bill and the process, and Republicans condemning it.

What was in it? Oh, you heard a little about that. How did it get in there? Not so much about that.

So again, “yes and no.” Yes, you can put a conference committee on C-SPAN. But no, you can’t make them actually do their deals in front of the camera. And so you get the “steak sauce” answer: You asked for an open and transparent conference. We just showed you everything covered by the definition of “conference” on C-SPAN.

But you didn’t learn anything.

And that’s part of the value of learning about the process — and the gap between what the rules say and how things are actually done. Ask for a televised conference and you may very well get it. But you won’t necessarily get what you were after, and you’ll instead spend your time arguing with one another over something more akin to what the meaning of “is” is.


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