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A Televised Conference Committee?

Republicans in the House and Senate are calling for the conference committee on the economic stimulus bill to be televised. It’s a fascinating idea.

A conference committee is a meeting among representatives of both the House and the Senate to work out differences between the two bodies on similar legislation. Both the House and Senate have now passed different versions of H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and they need to figure out what the final bill will look like.

I have been to conference committee meetings before as a staffer. Senators, Representatives, and their top staff members huddle in a smallish room and go through the bill hashing out the final product.

Contrary to popular belief, the ones I’ve attended were not in smoke-filled rooms. But they are closed, “insider” affairs. What goes in and what comes out are largely pre-determined by back-channel discussions before the actual meetings.

If conference committee meetings were televised, members of the conference committee would be constrained to explain what they were doing and why. That would be a good thing.

There is some risk in how these ideas are being put forward. Republicans threaten the goals of the transparency community (in which we count WashingtonWatch.com) if they use transparency as a partisan cudgel against Democrats and President Obama.

Republicans should pair their push for openness while Democrats are in control with a pledge to openness of their own. Any openness precedents set now should hold in any Congress, regardless of partisan control.

I’ve got my TiVo ready. Let’s get on with the show!

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