GOP misleads on congressional transparency

Republican congressmen have made a show of complaining about being shut out of negotiations on the stimulus, but what happened wasn't unusual.


Alex Koppelman
February 12, 2009 9:45PM (UTC)

House Republicans are, despite the results of several polls showing Americans think they're the ones who aren't being cooperative, still trying to convince voters that Democrats haven't been acting in a bipartisan fashion when it comes to the stimulus. On Wednesday, they had new ammunition for that claim.

Wednesday afternoon, after news of some agreement on the stimulus had broken, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, filmed a video in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, in which he pointed out that a deal had happened before the public conference on the bill had occurred. "[T]here are more shady deals going on behind closed doors -- without the public, without Republicans in attendance," Price said, encouraging anyone who's "sick of that kind of politics" to visit his Web site.

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Another leader in the House GOP, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), made similar comments to the conservative magazine Human Events. "I think the American people deserve to know that legislation that would comprise an amount equal to the entire discretionary budget of the United States of America is being crafted without a single House Republican in the room.”

We can all agree, surely, that back room deals that shut out the elected representatives of large swaths of the public are bad, and that the nation's business shouldn't be conducted this way. But a couple things are worth noting in the context of the GOP's complaints: First, there was plenty of Republican input on the final bill -- indeed, three Republican senators each held what amounted to veto power.

Moreover, these kinds of closed negotiations are, unfortunately, nothing new. House Republicans should be well aware of this, considering what happened when they had the majority. The definitive story of that period comes from Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, who wrote, in October of 2006:

It is no big scoop that the majority party in Congress has always found ways of giving the shaft to the minority. But there is a marked difference in the size and the length of the shaft the Republicans have given the Democrats in the past six years. There has been a systematic effort not only to deny the Democrats any kind of power-sharing role in creating or refining legislation but to humiliate them publicly, show them up, pee in their faces...

[Former California Rep. Bill] Thomas is notorious for excluding Democrats from the conference hearings needed to iron out the differences between House and Senate versions of a bill. According to the rules, conferences have to include at least one public, open meeting. But in the Bush years, Republicans have managed the conference issue with some of the most mind-blowingly juvenile behavior seen in any parliament west of the Russian Duma after happy hour. GOP chairmen routinely call a meeting, bring the press in for a photo op and then promptly shut the proceedings down. "Take a picture, wait five minutes, gavel it out -- all for show" is how one Democratic staffer described the process. Then, amazingly, the Republicans sneak off to hold the real conference, forcing the Democrats to turn amateur detective and go searching the Capitol grounds for the meeting. "More often than not, we're trying to figure out where the conference is," says one House aide.

In one legendary incident, Rep. Charles Rangel went searching for a secret conference being held by Thomas. When he found the room where Republicans closeted themselves, he knocked and knocked on the door, but no one answered. A House aide compares the scene to the famous "Land Shark" skit from Saturday Night Live, with everyone hiding behind the door afraid to make a sound. "Rangel was the land shark, I guess," the aide jokes. But the real punch line came when Thomas finally opened the door. "This meeting," he informed Rangel, "is only open to the coalition of the willing."

And, as the New York Times' Kate Phillips noted Wednesday, the conference held to discuss the stimulus was notable, even though it was meaningless. After all, in recent years, conferences have barely been held at all. 27 Senate Democrats have never attended a conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid observed at the meeting. For more on the subject, Phillips' colleague Carl Hulse's 2007 article on the subject is worth a read.

Update: Just to reiterate, I'm not suggesting that there's anything laudable or transparent about the process of negotiating this bill, I'm only pointing out that the GOP's complaints ring more than a little hollow. TPMDC's Elana Schor has a good post on what, exactly, is wrong with the way the stimulus was drafted, and why even Democratic partisans shouldn't support this kind of process.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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