“Put it on CSPAN” Translated


Public appetite for transparent health care negotiations is driving us toward more transparency.

While Congress has rightly responded to that public pressure by posting bills online for 72 hours, the public dialog about the process of shaping health care legislation is more focused on transparent deliberations.

President Obama’s promise to put healthcare negotiations on CSPAN, in combination with the question of formal conference proceedings, has become shorthand for several more fundamental questions. Formal requirements for public proceedings, while sometimes appropriate, are far short of what we should all be aiming for.

Firm requirements for public deliberations, since they are essentially prohibitions on private speech, are probably inappropriate for issues like health care in Congress. Since you can’t require those negotiations to be public, Promises and Requirements are downgraded to Suggestions and Inducements.

Maybe that’s why it’s been so easy to ignore what’s possible for health care deliberations. Since President Obama promised deliberations on CSPAN, shouldn’t we all focus there? It’s right to focus on a Presidential candidate’s promises, and they should mean something. But if it turns out to be a failure, that doesn’t mean we should all just go home. By focusing too much on requirements and promises, we’re missing out on a chance to conceive and create public dialog that does work.

That’s the realm that we shouldn’t be ignoring. Where hard and fast requirements can’t deliver what we’re all looking for, we should focus on thinking of what can deliver it. “Put it on CSPAN!” should start to address those more basic questions.

We’ve all been so focused on the precise language of President Obama’s campaign promise — did he or didn’t he keep it? — that everyone was gobsmacked by last Friday’s appearance before the House Republican retreat.

Since the appearance was almost universally welcomed, why haven’t there been calls for just such an appearance? Because the public dialog has been focused on evaluating promises and procedures (the realm of the requirement, which is ultimately insufficient for public deliberations) rather than on what we actually want to see.

That’s what was shocking to me about last Friday. Not just that the President and House Republicans were engaged in an honest, unscripted public debate, but that it wasn’t orchestrated beforehand, or the direct result of public pressure.

House Republicans and President Obama innovated in the face of diffuse public pressure.

We live in a world where live streaming, immediate clippable archives, and all manner of new public interaction are now possible. We should balance our judgment of the world of public deliberations requirements (conference committees, or exaggerated promises) against the world of what is possible and desirable.

We should also remember that inducing public deliberations into the public sphere is exactly the point of much of our politics. Sunday talk shows, discharge petitions, Dear Colleague letters, caucus meetings, and editorials are all, in their own way, attempts to cajole, drag, and otherwise induce a policy conversation into the public eye.

Of course, our new technological capacity is having an effect on each of those spheres as well.

We advocate for a 72 hour rule precisely because it empowers all of us to take part in a more substantive, valuable public dialog. Government information empowers participation, and the Sunlight Foundation exists to empower the public through access to information.

As technology leads us to have higher expectations, and politicians are forced to respond with new methods for including the public, we should all respond with better expectations about the possible and the desirable.

If we don’t, we’ll become more susceptible to fake public engagement, and lose the chance for new technology to lead to a better relationship between citizens and their representatives.