No Transparency on Debt Ceiling Debate

The public is getting shortchanged on the facts.

For concerned Americans, one of the more infuriating aspects of the current debt ceiling negotiations is the fact that they are filtered through the media lens prior to being made public. Considering the overall slant of the mainstream media, it thus becomes possible to portray Republicans, far more than Democrats, as the intransigent party to these negotiations. Are they? There is certainly an easy way to find out. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has proposed an obvious solution. "We might as well stake it out publicly to see what the disagreements are," said Sessions in an interview with The Hill on June 24th. Mr. Sessions is absolutely right. It's time to broadcast the debt ceiling talks on C-SPAN and allow the public to see what's really going on.

This is not to say that all negotiations among government officials should be made public. But a government of, by and for the people should have no qualms about letting the people see who wants to do what their taxes -- along with the taxes of their children and grandchildren. In fact, the president himself, after a reportedly contentious session butting heads with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), promised to take his case "to the American people." Mr. Cantor claimed the president became "agitated" during the exchange. Yet that version of the story was immediately disputed by Democrats. “The president could not have been more gracious. I have never seen a president spend so much time with the leadership of Congress day in and day out, respectful of their concerns,” said Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Who's telling the truth? Publicly aired negotiations would allow the American people to decide. Just as publicly aired negotiations would eliminate the ongoing media charade that the only one making substantive policy proposals is the president himself. This particular media meme was revealed for the kind of slanted reporting it truly is in an exchange on PBS's "Inside Washington" broadcast last Friday night. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer accused a "completely compliant, pliant, supine press [of] accepting every leak out of the White House" with respect to the $4 trillion "grand bargain" that the president has ostensibly offered. When NPR's Nina Totenberg rose to the president's defense, Mr. Krauthammer challenged her and other members of the show's panel to name "a single item in it that you can enunciate." No one offered anything, and Mr. Krauthammer made the ultimate point. "Well then how does he expect America to accept something in which he explains nothing?" he asked.

The answer to that question is obvious. The president and most of his colleagues fully expect a compliant, supine press to spin these negotiations in their favor. And such spin need not be errors of commission. Downplaying important stories is equally effective. For example, do a majority of Americans know that for the first time since 1974, when the Budget Act was passed to modernize the process, a Democratically-controlled Congress failed to enact a national budget in 2010? Does a majority know it's been over 800 days since the Senate passed one? Do they know House Republicans passed a budget in April already cutting $4.4 trillion in spending over the next decade, only to see it mothballed in the Senate? Do they know the only budget proposed by the president with an actual number attached to it was a $3.7 trillion debacle so onerous, it was defeated by a unanimous 97-0 vote in the Senate?

The answer, with respect to a majority of Americans, is no. Furthermore, it is expected that the public will remain largely in the dark. This sentiment was best expressed by White House political advisor David Plouffe immediately following the release of June's dismal employment numbers in which only 18,000 jobs were added to the economy, well below the 90,000 predicted by most economists. "The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers," Plouffe said. "People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate; they’re going to vote based on: 'How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?'"

Once again, if the budget negotiations were out in the open, Americans could decide for themselves if the president has their collective backs. Such talks would be far superior to the current process, described by the Associated Press as one which "seems to be yielding even more leaks and spin than usual." The AP also noted that the White House "attempts to limit on-the-record coverage of the meetings," and that they allow "a small group of reporters to attend the beginning of such meetings, but that only happened in three of the six debt talk meetings." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the limitations were necessary to prevent a "circus" atmosphere, like the one last Monday where members of the press were shouting out questions.

Yet Jim Manley, former top spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-NV), conceded that such control was next to impossible. "I have been involved in these kinds of meetings during the last two administrations and have never seen such a torrent of leaks from supposed private conversations as I have this time around. It shows that neither side really trusts the other," he said.

Who do Americans themselves trust? The most accurate answer is neither side. A Quinnipiac University poll seems schizophrenic. By a 56-38 percent margin, Americans disapprove of the way the president is running the economy, even as they trust him to handle it better than Republicans by 45-38 percent. They would also blame Republicans more than the president for failing to reach a debt ceiling deal, 48 percent to 34 percent. And while 67 percent are in favor of "taxing the rich," including corporations (reflecting the reality that most Americans don't know corporate taxes get passed on to the consumer), 57 percent of those surveyed think any tax changes would also hurt the middle class.

Those last two numbers reflect another reason for making the talks public. The president and liberals have spoken at great length about taxing "millionaires and billionaires" as part of the budget balancing negotiations. At some point, that euphemism would have to have a hard number attached to it. Is it really about taxing people who earn in excess of a million dollars a year? Or is it closer to the $250,000 that would encompass substantially more Americans, including the small business owners who are the backbone of America's job-creating engine? As the above poll indicates, 57 percent of Americans aren't sure.

Public negotiations would also remove one other sadly predictable element from the debate. On Friday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) once again pulled the race card from the political deck. "I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness [toward] this president,” said Lee, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Why is he different? And in my community, that is the question that we raise. In the minority community that is question that is being raised. Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully? Why has the debt limit been raised 60 times? Why did the leader of the Senate continually talk about his job is to bring the president down to make sure he is unelected?" She then got to the point with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. "Read between the lines," she added.

Sheila Jackson Lee has a conveniently short memory. Another president was heavily criticized for raising the debt ceiling. In 2006, a certain senator minced no words in that regard:

The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies. Over the past 5 years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is “trillion” with a "T." That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next 5 years, between now and 2011, the president’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion[.]

The president was George W. Bush. The senator doing the criticizing was Barack Obama. Sadly, Mr. Obama underestimated the carnage even as he was a huge contributor to it: this president has increased the national debt three times faster than his predecessor. Moreover, in order for the U.S. Treasury to maintain its ability to borrow through the 2012 elections, it will be necessary to raise the debt ceiling to $16.7 trillion. Thus from 2006-2012 the national debt will have nearly doubled.

Imagine such numbers being revealed publicly. Imagine both parties being forced to take their case directly to the American people, absent the spin currently being applied. Even if such a debate could never be realized, imagine how instructive it would be to see who favored such open negotiations and opposed them. Many members of both parties might be involved. But there is one person who can't possibly be against public debates without revealing the utter hypocrisy of such a position -- for the second time. This video is a montage of eight occasions on which president Barack Obama promised that negotiations on the health care bill would be broadcast on C-SPAN "so the public will be part of the conversation and will see the choices that are being made."

The health care wrangling was the epitome of closed-door, bad faith negotiations, which is one of the reasons among many it remains hugely unpopular with the American public. The debt ceiling negotiations present a grand opportunity for the president and his party to rectify the error of passing a bill first, "so you can find out what's in it," after the fact. It would also give Mr. Obama the chance to connect with same public he claims "is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a Treasury option goes."

Perhaps Americans would if they could. Just as importantly, they would no longer have to rely on the media's "interpretation" of those negotiations. No doubt, if those interpretations are accurate, Americans would be bedazzled by the president's coolness under fire and his oft-praised oratorical skills. They would also be equally disgusted with the mindless stubbornness (and possible racism) of his Republican counterparts. Or not.

Either way, pubic hearings on the most critical issue facing the nation would be a win-win for the electorate. For a president who once promised Americans he would make his administration the most open and transparent in history, it's a no-brainer.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website