Financial Conference Not Exactly Must-See TV

Posted June 18, 2010 at 5:34pm

When the financial regulatory reform conference convened nearly two weeks ago, lawmakers promised the public a rare look — gavel-to-gavel coverage on television — at a crucial and often veiled stage of the legislative process.

But lengthy debates over arcane issues, such as credit default swaps, are not must-see TV, and the panel’s slog through the bill has some Members wondering whether televised conferences on such wonky topics are worth it.

“It may be overdone in terms of the time commitment, and there is a fatigue factor,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said.

“For the normal person watching this on C-SPAN, financial reform is a bit removed. It’s not like health care or even energy,” the West Virginia Republican added.

The debate over financial services legislation was first overshadowed by the health care fight, and more recently by the clamor surrounding energy legislation. But once upon a time the fight over cracking down on Wall Street dominated both chambers, and aides suggest that televising the debate over the legislative nitty-gritty — no matter how unsexy — offers added bounce.

“The problem is you get a lot of positioning going on, and despite what people would like, you still get a lot of Members’ conversations in the halls to craft this bill,” Sen. Mark Begich said. “But I think, for the public, to renew our credibility, it’s important for them to see what we’re doing even if they turn off the tube after about an hour.”

The Alaskan, who sits on the Banking Committee, and other first-term Democrats have pushed leadership to craft a better offensive strategy for how the party’s activities are portrayed over the airwaves and in print. The televised financial reform conference fits seamlessly into that campaign, and Begich said Members from the classes of 2006 and 2008 might request more made-for-TV conferences in the future.

“We’re a little more aggressive about these things,” he said. “We’re not concerned with tradition as much as let’s do the business and let the public see what it is, and you’re seeing that.”

The formal conference on the financial reform legislation came at the request of House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). The practice has been on the decline in recent years despite a pledge by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2006, after Democrats won the majority in both chambers, that conference committees would make a comeback.

“We’re going to have something a lot of you, young journalists, have never seen,” the Nevada Democrat said at the time. “And that is open conference committee where we, the Democrats and Republicans, sit down in a room just like this around a table and you raise issues and we say whether this is a good or bad issue, and there’s a vote that takes place. That’s what we’re going to do.”

But Democrats quickly ran into roadblocks in getting to conference on marquis bills. In 2007, when both chambers were pursuing ethics reform, Senate Republicans stalled in approving conferees, prompting Democrats to instead ping-pong the legislation between the House and Senate.

Republicans “saw that denying going to conference didn’t slow down the process,” Martin Paone, a former Democratic leadership aide who now works for Prime Policy Group, said of the bill that was signed into law. “It just guaranteed that they had no say in the process.

Nevertheless, Congress continued to do business largely without conference committees, including for the Democrats’ biggest achievement since those comments by Reid in 2006 — enactment of the health care reform law.

Party leaders have moved legislation by sending amended versions back and forth between the House and Senate until both chambers exhaust their appetites for changes, or by striking bicameral deals behind closed doors, or some combination of both.

With the financial reform conference, Republicans have a public venue to challenge the legislation and vote on amendments. Still, Sen. Richard Shelby, ranking member of the Banking panel, complained that Democrats continue to do most of the real work in secret.

“It appears that we are off to a rocky start because the base text before the conference was negotiated and compiled behind closed doors and without any Republican participation,” the Alabama Republican said on June 10, the first day of the conference.

Other Republican conferees have echoed Shelby’s claim that despite the TV cameras in the committee room, the real negotiating is never seen on the screen.

“What we’re dealing with now is very much the fringe of the bill,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said. “In essence, the bill was knocked down and laid in cement when it was laid down by Chairman [Chris] Dodd [D-Conn.].”

Gregg maintained that “the real conferences, in the sense there are conferences around here, are done between staff of the majorities of the two chairmen.”

Despite those complaints, some conferees, who have already spent hours haggling over the bill, say the televised process has been largely positive. And while Frank joked that “we’d have to set ourselves on fire to have anyone pay attention to us,” he hopes the cameras continue to roll for this conference and ones yet to come.

“I’m not the editorial director for C-SPAN so I can’t promise it,” Frank said. “But I hope it sets a precedent.”