One universal silver lining to any abject failure is that it presents the opportunity to test out radically different ideas. President Obama has largely ignored his campaign promise to hold policy negotiations in public. But after yesterday’s epic budget compromise fail, it seems like a reasonable time to revisit that campaign promise and livestream talks over YouTube– because the federal government can’t do any worse than failing to perform one of its only mandated responsibilities.
To hear it from the man himself, as a candidate, a more optimistic Barack Obama said this about healthcare:
I’m going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We’ll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies — they’ll get a seat at the table, they just won’t be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is we’ll 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. And so that approach, I think, is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process.
In fairness to Obama, he did live stream a giant roundtable of policymakers — the so-called “healthcare summit.” To describe the live-streamed discussion as “shallow” would be a gross understatement. The GOP smartly stuck to talking points at nearly every turn, and after several hours of conversation no one would have learned more about healthcare if they watched more than 15 minutes of the talks.
It wasn’t a genuine test of transparency, however. Real negotiations are two, maybe three or four people. It’s not possible to have a meaningful discussion with 40 people. So after the summit, healthcare politicking continued behind closed doors.
There are a number of very compelling reasons for secret negotiations: It permits candor; it allows politicians to maintain a partisan public façade; and it shields any particular negotiator from being the target of blame.
Evidently, none of these were compelling enough to actually work for the budget.
So here are some benefits, however theoretically, for piloting the next round of budget negotiations on YouTube.
It Could Mitigate Extremists. Republicans especially have been haunted by a relatively extreme end of the libertarian wing, as many congressmen have reluctantly stuck to Grover Norquist’s pledge of no tax increases under any circumstances. If the public could view, in real time, how impractical such an uncompromising position was in negotiations, it might make extremists look utopian.
It Would Engage The Collective IQ. Despite access to the world’s experts, we don’t know if all the best facts make it to the negotiating table. Certainly last year’s presidential debates demonstrated that policymakers mentally operate on an embarrassingly small working knowledge of the world. Crowdsourcing expertise during the negotiations might aid policymakers in dispelling myths and unearthing novel solutions.
It Could Make Negotiations More Honest. During the eleventh-hour scramble, members turned to Twitter to talk smack and counter accusations.
Negotiators may see it as politically advantageous to be obstinate during talks and then publicly blame the other side for failing to compromise. Such a tactic wouldn’t be possible if everything were live-streamed.
Open government advocacy groups, such as the Sunlight Foundation, called on transparent discussions prior to the U.S. government going over the fiscal cliff [PDF]. Now, YouTube negotiations may not work. But, since Congress can’t do any worse, why not try transparency?