C-SPAN’s modest proposal

It wants Americans to have a ringside seat as the House and Senate work out a compromise on health care legislation. The idea is not as simple as it sounds.

Congress is approaching the finish line on healthcare legislation, reaching the crucial stage where the House and Senate reconcile their different versions in one final bill. C-SPAN, the network that covers gavel-to-gavel business in Congress, wants to make sure Americans can watch this final lap.

“The American people pay for all this that goes on in this town,” says C-SPAN’s chief executive, Brian Lamb. And “if we pay for something, and it’s the public’s business, we ought to be able to see how it’s done. It’s just that simple.”

But as logical as C-SPAN’S proposal sounds, it’s not so simple – even if, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised C-SPAN coverage of healthcare negotiations so “the people” can see who is making arguments on behalf of them and who is making them on behalf of drug and insurance companies.

Mr. Lamb wrote the leaders of Congress (both Democrats and Republicans) on Dec. 30 requesting that they open “all important negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media coverage.”

A special conference committee is sometimes formed to reconcile the two chambers on a bill, but not this time. The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress have decided to skip the conference and hammer out a single bill among themselves, largely behind closed doors.

Forgoing the conference is not unusual – for either party. Only about a quarter of bills ever go that route, according to the Senate historian, Don Ritchie. The ones that do are often big, contentious bills such as this one. But since no Republican voted for either the House or Senate versions, the legislation has become purely a Democratic creation for Democrats to shape (and to take the credit or blame).

So, the first hurdle for C-SPAN’s cameras is that there will be no public conference meetings to record.

Even if there were such meetings, they would likely amount to little more than a photo opportunity, which is what the modern-day conference has become.

That’s because at this stage, when lawmakers are forging their final compromises (i.e., when they’re backing down or completely reversing their positions at the time that counts most), they don’t want to make a public show of it. What they do want to do on television is to grandstand or to riff on already-worked-out positions.

And while one might argue that television cameras force lawmakers to steer clear of special interests, an equally strong – perhaps stronger – argument can be made that private negotiations among lawmakers make it easier for them to resist lobbyist pressure, to say innocuously to lobbyists after it’s all over, “I went to bat for you, but I just couldn’t win this one.”

This doesn’t mean Americans will be in the dark during this process. Legislation is on the Web for all to read, and reporters will be working their sources. Nor is it the last chance for citizen input, as members still have to vote on the bill. Ultimately, voters will hold lawmakers accountable.

To date, C-SPAN has televised hundreds of hours of committee hearings, markups, and floor debates on healthcare. That’s been a useful window into the process, but at the same time, the cameras have not stopped the flow of lobbying dollars or the intense partisanship surrounding healthcare legislation. Those involve bigger issues, including campaign financing, and, as is being talked about lately, the increased use of the Senate filibuster.

C-SPAN’s proposal wouldn’t stop the backroom dealing, and indeed, there must be some way for lawmakers to work out problems among themselves. Otherwise, America winds up with just the grandstanding.

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