closed-door negotiations and leadership struggles

Well, as we wait for Reid, Dodd, Snowe, Obama, and Pelosi to finalize health care negotiations ahead of a floor fight, the one thing that stands out to me is how opaque the process is now. When the Baucus disaster was in the center ring, at least we had public information on negotiations within the Finance Committee. But these days, we know next to nothing about the progress of negotiations behind closed doors. All we really know comes from inane statements from Reid, like when he said that he was “leaning towards talking about a public option”. As a kid I used to tell my Mom I was “leaning towards talking about considering taking out the trash.” It sounded just as stupid then as it does today. All this uncertainty during negotiations only leads to wildly contradictory reports. The public option is dead! No, it’s alive again!

What degree of secrecy is acceptable during final floor negotiations? And shouldn’t activists put more pressure on Reps and Sens during the leadership selection process?

Party activists on both sides clearly get squeamish when they think that their congressional leaders might cave on their pet issues, and therefore might demand public negotiations so that they can retain some leverage in the discussion. At least, that’s true when pushing for new measures. When defending a pet issue already on the books that is under popular attack, activists might prefer a closed process that lets congressional leaders get some distance from public pressure. However, it seems like there’s a bias towards preferring publicity in most cases, on both sides of the aisle. There’s something in the personality of a true believer that makes them trust that a fundamentally decent and thoughtful public will eventually take up their cause.

The best current example I can see right now is the case of the tea baggers and public option bloggers … they seem to have done a good job exerting public pressure during the open negotiations phase, and even now are major actors while the bill is behind closed doors. And the true believers on either side trust the public actors in Congress (Rep. Bachmann and Rep. Grayson, for example), much more than they trust the closed door people (Sen. Snowe and Sen. Reid, for example).

So if activists prefer public campaigns to closed-door bargaining because they believe they have a higher likelihood of winning out in the open, then why do we so often end up with congressional leaders who the rank and file distrust? If activists distrust Reid today, they presumably had similar misgiving during the leadership elections back when Democrats took over the Senate. Yet somehow Reid won, instead of someone more acceptable to the base and more inclined to hold more public proceedings — like Sen. Schumer, for example.

I’m no expert on congressional caucus leadership struggles, so I can’t draw too many predictions. But I’d guess that as activist bases gain more power within political parties, their preference for publicly-waged legislative negotiations will make leadership contests more contentious. Activist groups will start weighing in when it really matters – during leadership balloting – instead of waiting to organize around pet issues when they finally come before committee.

Maybe I’m a little late to the punch on this issue, so if anyone can point me towards similar arguments, I’d be grateful.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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