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Please Enjoy This Phony Debt Debate

July 7, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Senate Republicans have been hammering Democrats and the Obama Administration for negotiating the debt limit and deficit deal behind closed doors and out of the public view. They have a point. Unless there’s something you’re bringing to the table that you’d rather hide from the public, why not put a camera in the negotiating room and broadcast the talks?

Some commentators like to argue that broadcasting the negotiations would just turn them into political sideshows and push the real negotiating into different back rooms. That’s an argument I can’t accept. On principle, the public should have access to everything Congress does, not just most of it. There should be no back rooms. The cameras come on when work time begins, and when work time ends members of Congress are entitled to their privacy like the rest of us. Remember, they work for us. Doing our work behind our back to avoid being held accountable is unethical, and congressional rules and the law should reflect that.

In that light, check out what’s going on in the Senate right now.

Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] has brought up S.1323, a bill expressing the sense of the Senate that people earning $1 million per year or more should “make a more meaningful contribution to the deficit reduction effort.” Today they secured 60 votes and cleared cloture on the bill, which means they’ll spend the next 30 hours or so debating it. Or as David Waldman puts it, they’ll spend the day trading barbs on the budget and debt ceiling, as opposed to the alternative if they had not cleared cloture: spending the day trading barbs on the budget and debt ceiling.

Once they wrap up work on that bill (which I’ll tell you right now will end in defeat), it appears as if they’ll move to Sen. Rand Paul’s [R, KY] bill, S.1326, to increase the debt ceiling with, no strings attached. If they secure cloture on that, more barbs on the budget and debt. If they don’t, guess…

Point is, the Senate’s idea of an open, public debate seems to be not much more than forcing votes on purposely divisive and sarcastic resolutions and using the debate time to ham it up for the C-Span cameras (remember, they’re speaking to an empty chamber).

As long as the different stages of the legislative process have different levels of transparency, the Senate floor will not be a good place for serious work. As it stands, Congress accomplishes most of its serious work in committees. This is partially because of the structure of committees, but it’s also because there is almost no transparency for most of what committees do. The vast majority of committee meetings receive no major media coverage, and the lack of transparency makes it very difficult, and often impossible, for reporters and bloggers outside of D.C. to cover them. That lack of oversight makes lawmakers in committee meetings less worried about the eloquence of their remarks and allows them to focus more on real negotiating and real talk about the issues. I’m sure private, unofficial meetings are even more productive, as transparency there is completely non-existent. Note here that by “productive” I do not mean “accomplishing work in the public’s interest.” What I mean is closer to that opposite of that. 

What the Senate is going to spend the next several days on is an insult to the public at large. It really doesn’t amount to much more than making fun of those of us who want transparency in the debt negotiations. The senators know that what they’re giving us isn’t the open debate we want, they just think we’re too ignorant to know it.

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