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Opinion: Columnists

Want to force a compromise? Negotiate in public

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Mark Tapscott,Columnists,Campaign 2012

Few things are more characteristic of business as usual in Washington, D.C., than closed doors. Nothing will do more to end business as usual than opening them to C-SPAN cameras.

With the "fiscal cliff" of sequestration approaching, now is the perfect time to establish a precedent: The bigger the deal, the more important it is that negotiations be done in public.

It took about 12 seconds after the 2012 campaign winners were declared for the maneuvering toward a "grand bargain" to begin among President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner.

Everybody professes to favor compromise, but without open negotiations there is no way to know who actually offers concrete compromises and who merely talks about them.

The essential antidote is to let C-SPAN's cameras cover the negotiations gavel to gavel, with open news conferences after every bargaining session.

The only reasonable alternative to the cameras would be making public a complete transcript of every word said during the talks, with no opportunities for participants to "revise and extend" their remarks.

Strictly from a political perspective, Boehner and House Republicans have nothing to lose and everything to gain by insisting on open negotiations as a precondition for the coming talks.

Surely by now, they understand that as long as they bargain with Obama and Reid behind closed doors, it doesn't really matter what they propose.

If they don't agree to large tax rate hikes, symbolic spending cuts and gutless entitlement "reforms," they will be portrayed as the mindless, heartless opposition.

The best way to prevent that from happening is to let the C-SPAN cameras roll. If Obama and Reid say no to every Boehner proposal, at least the public will see who is negotiating in good faith and who isn't.

Obama recognized the political value in 2008 of promising to open health care reform negotiations to C-SPAN. But when crunch time came, he conveniently forgot his promise.

A related Obama promise was made on his first day in the Oval Office -- to conduct the most open and transparent administration ever. Four years later, most open-government advocates across the ideological spectrum agree that the first four Obama years were quite the opposite.

Now that he doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected and can focus on building his legacy, there is no reason for Obama not to redeem his promises about opening up government. What better place to start than the first big challenge of his second term?

Here's another reason why C-SPAN should be allowed to cover the talks. Sooner or later, the tax code must be reformed, and the coming deal to avoid the fiscal cliff is the first step in that arduous process.

The current tax code represents the Holy Grail for every front-line lobbyist in town and they thrive behind closed doors where professional politicians make deals, then bury the terms in obscure legislative language understood only by the parties to the deal.

C-SPAN cameras would be like crosses and sunlight to Dracula. The lobbyists would be out of business this time around, which would free the politicians to seek the public interest instead of chasing yet another campaign contribution.

Am I being naive in proposing this? If the bargaining involved talks among private-sector businesses, no overriding public interest would be at stake. If the parties involved sign a deal, it's their contract and government's only interest is in enforcing honestly made agreements.

But negotiations among elected officials seeking agreements on federal tax and spending policies are at the heart of the public interest. They ought to be the last place we would ever accept secret deals.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner