C-SPAN to Congress: Let Us In!

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 When President Barack Obama was campaigning for the job in 2008, he vowed that he would bring greater transparency to government—especially when it comes to health care reform legislation:

We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies.

Now C-SPAN is asking precisely for that. Its CEO, Brain Lamb, has sent a letter to House and Senate leaders, requesting that his network be permitted to broadcast the final negotiations, as the two chambers work out the differences between each body’s version of the legislation:

As your respective chambers work to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate health care bills, C-SPAN requests that you open all important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media coverage.

The C-SPAN networks will commit the necessary resources to covering all of these sessions LIVE and in their entirety. We will also, as we willingly do each day, provide C-SPAN’s multi-camera coverage to any interested member of the Capitol Hill broadcast pool. 

The proceedings of conference committees—the House-Senate gatherings that merge and finesse different bills into a final measure—usually occur behind closed doors. And The New Republic has reported that the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate have decided in this case to skip a conference committee and hold informal negotiations instead, in order to avoid legislative procedures that Senate Republicans could use to stall the deliberations. That would make the process even more secretive. Yet Lamb argues:

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. 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.

He has a point. But Lamb shouldn’t expect Obama to lean on his fellow Dems in Congress to grant C-SPAN its wish. Last July, Obama was asked about his campaign pledge:

Q: You promised that health care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN and that hasn’t happened….Are you fulfilling your promise of transparency in the White House?

He replied:

With respect to all the negotiations not being on C-SPAN, you will recall in this very room that our kick-off event was here on C-SPAN. And at a certain point, you know, you start getting into all kinds of different meetings. The Senate Finance Committee is having a meeting. The House is having a meeting. If they want those to be on C-SPAN, then I would welcome it. I don’t think there are a lot of secrets going on in there.

That was a dodgy answer. Obama’s “kick-off event” was not part of the negotiations. And there are always “secrets” when legislators come together in private to slice and dice the sausage. Lamb is right to press Congress to show citizens how this important bill is being finalized. But he sure shouldn’t count on filling any programming holes with broadcasts of these proceedings. 

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