Televising the FinReg Debate: Good for Partisanship, but Not Much Else

As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for--you just might get it.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised that Congressional health-care negotiations would be broadcast 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." But that never really happened--much to the chagrin of both liberals and conservatives. FOX News posted the C-SPAN reversal atop its list of Obama's "abandoned commitments," Salon argued that while "politicians have always broken promises," they've "rarely" done it "so proudly and with such impunity." Everyone was bummed.

Well, be bummed no more, my fellow Americans--sort of. This morning, Politico reported that Democrats are now seeking to finish FinReg by resurrecting "the House-Senate conference committee, in which lawmakers from both parties will hash out differences between the two chambers' bills"--and that the Democratic Party's leader on the issue, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, "even wants C-SPAN there to capture their decision making and expose members who vote with Wall Street."

Hooray, right? Three cheers for transparency? Not so much. Back in January, when the initial C-SPAN debate was raging, my Newsweek/WaPO colleague Ezra Klein called a time-out to explain why inviting cameras into the conference room would actually hurt the process. "If you open the negotiations to C-Span, the result isn't just that C-Span televises the negotiations," he wrote. "It's that the negotiations change ... What you'll get are kabuki negotiations in which legislative leaders make carefully planned statements about the awesomeness of the bill while staff works in a back room to haggle out" the real details. The process gets even more bloated, in other words, while the underlying bill remains the same.

This time around, it could be even worse. C-Span's presence won't change the legislation in any meaningful way. But I suspect that what it will do is provide a platform--and an incentive--for increased partisanship and polarization. Why? Because all of the actual negotiations will still take place in private. It will only be when lawmakers are ready to ratify their decisions--again, after weeks of closed-door talks--that the process will go public in the form of a conference committee. When it does, expect to see a lot more grandstanding than statesmanship. Democrats will seize on the TV time to declare that any Republican who refuses to vote for the bill--which is what all of the as-yet-unnamed conferees are expected to do--is an enemy of Main Street. Republicans, meanwhile, will use the cameras to "box Democrats into a corner, calling for a level of transparency that neither party has ever practiced and hitting them when they fail to live up to it," as Politico reports.

So forget kabuki theater. This will be a steel-cage match.