Monday, August 17, 2009

Really Open Meetings

On Saturday I posted a story about The Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce kicking cameras out of a public meeting with two congressional representatives. I said, "When a public official is discussing a public issue, no matter what the venue and no matter who is present, that is a public meeting."

Today we have a real-life example of the importance of that principle. Have a look at this video of US Rep Eric Massa (D-NY) discussing his voting rationale at a round table discussion at the annual Netroots Nation conference. Is he standing on principle or betraying his constituents? You decide.

The audio quality is not very good, so here's a transcript of the key statements
MASSA: I will vote for the single payer bill.

PARTICIPANT: Even if it meant you were being voted out of office?

MASSA: I will vote adamantly against the interests of my district if I actually think what I am doing is going to be helpful.

(garbled participants’ comments regarding the the word “interests”, to which Mass shrugged and then said:)

MASSA: I will vote against their opinion if I actually believe it will help them. (emphasis added)

It's an age old question. Should our elected representatives vote according to the wishes of their constituents or according to their own convictions. I think there are strong points that can be made on both sides of Congressman Massa's dilemma, so I won't opine on the merits of his choice.

Instead I want to focus on the extraordinary value of this video! How often do we get this kind of insight into the machinations of our elected officials?

Did he know he was being recorded? It's hard to say. The cameraman was standing and everyone between the camera and Massa were sitting. So it would seem likely he saw the camera, but if it was a cell phone or other small device, who knows?

His comments about the liberal need to 'stack the deck' at his town hall meetings make me think he didn't know he was being recorded. This seemed like a very relaxed and casual meeting in which an elected official let down his hair with those he believed to be 'friendlies'.

Imagine if all such meetings had transcripts!

Now wait a minute Mr Watchman. Don't our representatives have a right to private conversations?

If the topics are private, then yes they do. But when the topic is a health care bill, no they don't.

Gee, can't they even have private strategy meetings within their own party?

Again, if the subject matter is their re-election strategy, then maybe so. But to the degree that strategy has *anything* to do with public policy (eg, stacking the town hall deck so that they don't lose the allegiance of three million voters on the health care bill, as Mr Massa suggested was happening), then heck no.

I admit there are grey areas here. But I long for the day when a candidate for public office will run on a total transparency platform, a candidate who will record all his/her conversations every day (except obvious things like personal calls with the family, etc) and post the transcripts online.

That man or woman will either be a one-termer or the next President of the United States. The difference will be a matter of personal character and integrity -- as it ought to be.

Any takers?


  1. The problem with transparency is that there is no one who has the guts to be transparent. They all run on that promise, but it never happens.

  2. I think the proposal to log and record all conversations would just lead to even more political theatrics than we already have, which is already egregiously in excess.

    Few people, darned few, maybe as few as zero, can go for two years without making a comment that either they genuinely regret, or that one side or the other in a policy war can't seize upon to exaggerate or distort a position.

    I think the primary result from actualizing a proposal like this would be to create a cottage industry of "Gotcha!" miners. (Hey, maybe that would help drive down unemployment.)

    The basic problem with the suggestion, however, is that it would seem to rely on something that we want to take for granted anyway: the honesty of the politician.

    In other words, how could I possibly trust the output from a person I didn't trust in the first place? It wouldn't be difficult at all to stage "good" conversations, and then turn the mike off at other times.

    Non-voluntary, or monitored? Sounds a bit Orwellian to me.

    I think I'd leave it for now that I'd prefer to be electing someone who would always behave as though whatever he or she said was going to be publicly broadcast.

    Ah, the stuff of dreams.

    BTW, I'll have to see that video a third or fourth time, I guess. I didn't find anything particularly disturbing so far. In fact, it seems like Massa was being goaded near the end of the video by someone off camera (the cameraman or someone who knew the scene was being recorded?), apparently trying to get him to say very clearly and repeatedly that he wouldn't change his vote regardless of the percentage opinion "in the room". That person kept upping the percentage, and seemed shocked that Massa continued to maintain that he wouldn't allow the percentage opinion in a town hall meeting sway him.

    And of course, a town hall meeting is never going to be a representative sample of constituent opinion. The unhappy tend to show up, and the contented usually can't be bothered. Always been that way; probably always will be.

    Even an election is not necessarily a reliable sample of constituent opinion. But it's the one that counts, and probably the best we can do without making voting obligatory.

  3. Mandatory monitoring? How could the Liberty Watchman be in favor of that?

    I wonder if the 'gotcha' industry would be blunted by the very volume of on-the-record statements. A 1-in-200 or even 1-in-50 mistake seems more defensible than mistakes on the meager public record today.

    Imagine the effect this would have on lobbyists if they knew their every word was on-the-record.

    My proposal, like any new idea, has potential pitfalls. And the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. But I'd still like to see someone try this.