On C-SPAN: What’s a Little Promise Among Friends?

My, oh my. Transparency is getting defined down to excuse a breaking campaign promise.

At the Center for American Progress’ “Think Progress Wonk Room” blog (or whatever it’s called), Igor Volsky makes the case against allowing C-SPAN cameras into negotiations about the health care bill. Recall that President Obama promised on the campaign trail to have health care negotiations broadcast on C-SPAN.

“But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009,” says Volsky, “filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.”

He does have a point. Television causes politicians to grandstand and doesn’t necessarily improve the legislative process.

But President Obama knew that when he made the promise, and he made the promise all the same. The credibility of the legislative process suffers from its overall opacity, and Candidate Obama promised different, starting with health care legislation — to progressives’ cheers as much as any other group.

Yet he appears to be walking away from that promise. And Volsky wants to abet him with a transparency caveat — only if it “improve[s] the underlying bill.”

Improvement is in the eye of the beholder, of course. This is not a welcome gloss. It’s bait and switch. “[T]he reality of politics doesn’t square with the promises of the campaign trail,” says Volsky.

Matt Yglesias’ short post backing his co-blogger is — appropriately, perhaps — opaque: “This is also an example of the concrete harm done to the country by politicians overestimating the impact of campaign tactics on election outcomes.” I don’t understand what that means.

Ezra Klein has the decency to say he’s conflicted. He admits that a transparent health care conference might be “better than nothing,” but he makes the same argument as Volsky: the process will change, but not necessarily for the better. No mention that this was a promise, or that the credibility of the president to marginal voters matters.

The argument that transparency is only useful if it leads to a better bill is reminiscent of Lawrence Lessig’s widely panned essay “Against Transparency.” I wrote of it:

Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement” — unvarnished access to government data — “is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

These commentators have sounder premises, of course. They want transparency to improve legislation.

But transparency is not simply a means to better bills. It’s a means to better politicians — when people see one leader being smart and fair, while others are not. It’s a means to a better organized society — if people decide that politicians aren’t as qualified to apportion society’s resources as they thought. It’s a means to better-run programs — when people compare the dollars going in with the results coming out. Heck, transparency is a civics lesson for high school students! There is a transparency vision that these commentators eschew in favor of the status quo.

Even good John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to transparency, kicks the ground and mumbles about televising conference committees not being a panacea. The promise was to broadcast “negotiations,” of course, not just the formal meeting of any conference committee. And one of the commenters on his post has the better of it. “Open [conference committees] are not a panacea, but they are one tent-pole,” says Sarah Welsh of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Her state mandated open conference committess last year, for the good.

And it was a campaign promise.

“The public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote,” Igor Volsky says. Which brings us to another promise: On the campaign trail, Candidate Obama said, “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

The president is currently six for 124 on that promise, having shown recent improvement. But one has to wonder how Volsky would caveat away that promise and further define down government transparency.

One to watch: President Obama’s promise to “go line by line” over earmarks, which OMB has said it will implement by collecting and databasing Congressmembers’ earmark requests in the FY 2011 budget cycle.