President Barack Obama called closed-door negotiations a "mistake" after backroom wheeling and dealing almost sunk his health care bill.
But the fiscal cliff talks are playing out much the same way.
The negotiations on the Hill have taken place in private. Obama has held closed-door sessions with CEOs, union leaders, liberal activists and small business owners. When congressional leaders were invited to the White House, cameras were allowed in for a brief statement -- then ushered out. And GOP aides, not White House officials, leaked details of the administration's opening offer on the fiscal cliff to reporters.
Of course, it's extremely difficult to reach compromise on major legislation in Washington with cameras present -- and pretty tough even when they're not. Obama has learned that the hard way during his first term. But his 2008 pledge to open up the process -- a commitment he repeated in 2010 -- has provided a perennial attack line against him whenever there's a prickly issue that needs to be resolved.
Some on the right, chiefly Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, have embarked on a campaign to open the negotiations to the public. A few on the left agree. The desire for transparency seems to come largely from those at either end of the political spectrum who fear their allies will abandon them behind closed doors. And good-government groups believe closed-door talks almost always lead to special favors and deals that shortchange the public.
"The negotiations are dead until you get the cameras in there," Norquist told POLITICO. "The only way to stop posturing is to have the cameras there." He said Obama ran for president "saying he would have the cameras there" on health care, and "this is his opportunity to make up for that."
Sessions charged Monday on Fox News that "These secret talks violate the principle of American government that [it] would be open. Every city, county, school board has open meeting laws."
Many Washington veterans dismiss talk of open budget negotiations as fantasy. Some degree of secrecy is essential, they say, especially with interest groups watching for the slightest wavering from their agendas.
"You're talking to a former journalist [who believes in] freedom of the press, transparency and open meetings, but you cannot have talks like this go public," said Tom Korologos, a longtime D.C. lobbyist who worked as a former Senate liaison for Presidents Nixon and Ford. "It thwarts and hampers the leaders in the meeting from expressing their opinions. They can't just say, 'That's bull****, Mr. Secretary, you know that,' and he can't say, 'God damn it, the president wants it.'... For these closed-door meetings -- and I've been in hundreds of them in the Executive Branch and on the Hill -- you get a lot more done behind closed doors than you certainly do with open doors."
Korologos said public talks would lead to showboating that could jeopardize the chances of resolving the issue before tax rates jump up on Jan. 1.
"If all of them need to take place in the open, we'll be here 'til the Fourth of July," he said.
Asked how to move the talks forward, former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin had a simple solution this week during a briefing at the Bipartisan Policy Center: "Get off the Sunday shows."
No one in congressional leadership is pushing for open negotiations. But Obama's commitment to run the most transparent administration in history has made the issue more complicated for him.
He campaigned in 2008 on a promise of open health care reform meetings, pledging to "have the negotiations televised 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." In August of 2007, he lamented that "Decisions are made in closed-door meetings, or with the silent stroke of the president's pen. ... We have to take the blinders off the White House."
He reiterated his commitment in a 2010 interview after the messy health care debate. During that process, the administration and congressional Democrats privately cut deals with pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, hospitals and unions.
"We had to make so many decisions quickly in a very difficult set of circumstances that after a while, we started worrying more about getting the policy right than getting the process right," Obama told ABC's Diane Sawyer.
He called the decision to hold the meetings behind closed doors a "mistake," a sentiment he repeated in a YouTube interview and at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. But a more battle-hardened president also acknowledged a tension between being transparent and actually getting something done.
"I made that commitment and I probably should have put it on C-SPAN, although one of the tricky things is trying to figure out, well, if it is on C-SPAN, are people actually going to be saying what they think about trying to get the bill done or is everybody going to be posturing to say things that sound good for the camera? But I think it is a legitimate criticism to say, if you say that all of it is going to be on C-SPAN, all of it is going to be on C-SPAN," Obama said.
"Have we gotten it perfect? No. Have we done better than any administration in recent memory? Absolutely. And we'll keep on trying to improve on it," the president said.
The issue has surfaced again during the current fiscal cliff debate. During the past few days, reporters have pressed White House press secretary Jay Carney on access to information. Carney has said that the White House considers transparency "important" but also has emphasized the confidentiality of the talks.
"We do not go to meetings with proposals and leak them afterwards, or take proposals from the other side and leak them to the press. That's not the way we're operating here," Carney said at a briefing Tuesday. Last week, he told reporters that "participants in the conversations that have taken place in this building have volubly discussed those conversations with the press, many members right out here at the stakeout and others elsewhere."
A White House official noted that congressional leaders of both parties are not nearly as willing to release the names of business leaders, labor officials and stakeholders who meet routinely with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Only the White House releases public logs of visitors, the Obama aide said.
Neither Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, nor Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, commented on the calls for talks to be open to C-SPAN. Buck noted that a C-SPAN producer was in the room when the GOP publicly unveiled their counteroffer. He and Hammill also said they had provided a list of CEOs the leaders met with about the fiscal cliff and debt control.
Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to inquiries from POLITICO about their stand on transparency in the fiscal cliff talks.
Some transparency advocates say they're disappointed that the administration seems to have adopted traditional Washington arguments for secrecy -- despite Obama's pledge to oversee the most transparent White House in history.
"The administration has embraced the idea that divided government leads to secret negotiations, despite the fact that these negotiations were largely created by the last round of secretive, dysfunctional negotiations. It's unfortunate that the White House is giving House Republicans better access to their priorities and proposals than to the public, who have to rely on leaks and rumors to understand how their government is operating," said John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation.
Yet even some transparency advocates say negotiators need a degree of space -- at least until a deal is reached.
"I think it's reasonable to have closed-door meetings, or nobody will ever get a deal," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal-leaning group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "People need room to negotiate." Sloan said that right-wing critics -- including Norquist -- just want to scuttle the talks with their call for transparency. "It's just laughable, coming from them," Sloan said. "Those people have never cared about transparency at all."
David Frum, a White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has scoffed at the notion that Washington leaders should focus on opening government to the public.
"I think transparency is the most overrated concept in government," Frum told CNN earlier this year. "It doesn't do what you want it to do, it's usually not desirable, it breeds cynicism and, of course, it's counterproductive."
Some liberal interest groups think televised debt talks could help frame the debate and ensure that cuts to popular programs don't survive.
"I think it would be smart if the president were to challenge the Republicans to sit down in front of cameras and tell the American people what they want," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future.
Hickey said he isn't convinced there are serious negotiations right now, even behind the scenes.
"The real negotiations are happening in public," Hickey said. "There's not much going on in private at all."
Still, the closed-door approach is counterproductive, Sunlight's Wonderlich said.
"If arriving at secret deals and avoiding political posturing were our goal as a country, then we wouldn't have elections," he said. "Political debates in Congress may often be fake, but they're far better than having no representation, control, or information about what's happening, which is what we have for these negotiations between party leaders."
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