Friday, March 26, 2010

Transparency Versus Results

or "I know the secrets that you keep when you're talking on C-SPAN."

My brother sent me a message on Facebook with this video attached, wondering what I thought of it. (He adds that he's for universal healthcare.) The video was called "CNN is finally getting it" (I don't think by Tom). I'm embedding a YouTube video of the same broadcast, since Facebook won't let me transfer it directly.

I like Cafferty a lot, but I think he missed the boat with this clip. (Is it recent, by the way? It seems like the peak of these complaints would arise around the time of the first senate vote, with the Cornhusker Kickback, etc.)*

Obama made that promise, but he shouldn’t have. For one thing, the legislature is its own branch, and makes its own decisions on what to broadcast and what not to. But also, because the proposal sounds a lot better as a promise than it would work in reality. Broadcasting negotiations is pretty much counter to what negotiations need to be – at least in the modern world.

Politicians are taking strong stances to appease their voters. Republicans, in particular, get tons of heat (from the public, usually after being wound up by Rush or Beck) when they deviate from the party line. Democrats get it from the other side, from groups like MoveOn and DailyKos (nowhere near as powerful or influential as Rush, but they do exert some pressure). And neither side wants compromise of any sort – they treat any bending of principles as a deep loss.

But negotiation needs compromise. There needs to be a place where legislators can speak to each other off the record, so that they can each give a little without getting attacked by their respective bases. Broadcasting everything would have given the entire process over to the town-hall chaos of last August.

With healthcare, there wasn’t a lot of compromise between parties in the end. But from the start, the bill incorporated a lot of Republican ideas. If it hadn’t, it would have truly been government-run healthcare, a single-payer Medicare for All. That’s the liberal ideal, and it was compromised from the get-go, and compromised again with the loss of the public option. The individual mandate that some Republicans are now complaining about as unconstitutional is another Republican idea. The final bill looks a lot like what Mitt Romney instituted in Massachusetts; I’ve heard it also looks quite a bit like what Republicans counterproposed in the 90s as an option to HillaryCare, but I haven’t looked into that.

Anyway, I suspect that one of the biggest problems in Congress is that the whole thing is a stage, and there’s too little private time for negotiation and compromise. There are so many opportunities to shout, “Hell, no, you can’t!” and too few opportunities to sit down away from the cameras, and figure out how to make something work without either party losing face over it.

Which assumes that either party would want such a result; the big problem is that it runs counter to a guiding Republican philosophy, articulated by Reagan: That government itself is the problem. It’s hard to negotiate for success when one of the parties is founded on the notion that government can’t succeed, and must be stopped. (I’m sure Republicans have a similar narrative about why it’s impossible to negotiate with Democrats, but they sure seem to have an easier time finding Dems to back their bills than Dems do finding Republicans.)

As for Cafferty’s claim that Pelosi’s congress isn’t the cleanest in American history, fair enough. That’s another awfully big promise to have made, and like Obama's in many ways, one that's not entirely in her control. But even with the Rangel, Massa, and Paterson scandals (who isn’t in Congress, but lets throw him in), it’s certainly cleaner than the last Republican-run congress (with Foley, Cunningham, Ney, Lewis, Vitter, Craig, Ensign, and more, all the way down to the Professor and Mary Anne). I agree she should be more proactive in punishments, and get ahead of these scandals, but there’s little else she can do beyond that – other than not promising to be the “cleanest in history” again.

Then again, she just herded 220 cats – twice – to pass the most sweeping government program since Medicare. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t inclined to cut her a little slack. Process is nice, but results are what last.


*Actually, watching it again I realize that this was right after the Senate passed its bill (and, as I guessed, right around the time of all the anger at the last bit of armtwisting to get 60 votes was cresting). I’m not sure what Cafferty thinks the upside of negotiating publicly with the Republicans would have achieved at that point that couldn’t be more efficiently done by just allowing a staffer to hold up a sign that said “No!” every so often.

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