Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lights, Cameras, Logrolling

Brian Lamb, the founder and CEO of the C-SPAN networks, is one of the great (though unheralded) Americans of our time, in my opinion.

That most Americans don't know or care who he is doesn't mean he hasn't done them an invaluable service, by creating a set of cable channels that give average people unprecedented (and unbiased) access to the inner workings of Washington, D.C. It comes to them direct, without any "mainstream media" filter. It comes to them straight: Lamb carefully picks his on-air personalities not just for their high degree of intelligence and civic literacy, but for their notable lack of personality and political agendas. People speak in full sentences on C-SPAN, not sound-bites. And it comes to Americans free, courtesy of responsible cable providers.

Now the normally low-key Lamb is courting potential controversy by trying to do Americans another huge favor: He's asking Congress to open House-Senate CongressCare negotiations to C-SPAN cameras, which would give the people an unprecedented look into the inner-inner-workings of Congress -- taking us right into the backrooms where the deals are cut. That's why it's highly unlikely Congress will comply with Lamb's request.

"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," Lamb wrote in a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders. "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. We hope you will give serious consideration to this request. We are most willing to employ the latest digital technology to make the cameras, lights and microphones as unobtrusive as possible."

The more unobtrusive C-SPAN can be, the better, in my opinion. Maybe some of the conferees will forget they're being recorded, drop the phony veneers and become what they really are behind closed doors, in unscripted action (the pros and cons of televising such meetings is explored on this Fox News blog, penned by a former C-SPAN employee). The network's presence might confer an even greater benefit, however -- a blessing, really -- if the presence of cameras serves to reduce or eliminate the sort of back room deal-cutting, logrolling and earmark-chasing that normally marks such sessions.

One public interest will be served by pushing back the frontiers of government transparency. Another will be served if that transparency fosters more restraint, caution and circumspection on the part of conference participants, resulting in a better piece of legislation than we would see if the cameras are excluded.

The bill still will stink. It just may stink a little less.

The Congressional switchboard is at 202-224-3121 if you want to weigh-in on the issue. It's not just Congress that needs to support this proposal, though. President Obama said during a 2008 presidential debate that he would be "broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are," if this piece of legislation ever came to pass. Now is the time for Obama to make good on that promise.

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