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GOP Promises Transparency, but With Limits

Leaders Sketch Plan for a Republican Majority

House Republicans said the webcast of a forum held Friday between Members and lobbyists is an example of the kind of openness they would bring if they retake the majority, but leaders warned that some meetings would still remain behind closed doors.

The lobbyist meeting, a part of the GOP agenda-crafting project America Speaking Out, was originally scheduled to be a closed affair in Minority Leader John Boehner’s (Ohio) office.

Boehner made it open in response to a request from an activist group after Roll Call made public an e-mailed invitation to lobbyists.

Rep. Peter Roskam, the deputy chairman of the America Speaking Out initiative, said the decision to open the meeting was an easy one.

“Transparency is one of the issues that the majority completely mishandled. They mishandled it from an expectations point of view,” the Illinois Republican said. “I think that there is a real desire on the part of the American public to understand the process and even though we are not in the majority, this is a process component, seeking input and I see it as a reflection of what the public expects from Congressional leadership.”

But with the public forum came a degree of predictability that may not have been present without cameras in the room, such as written opening statements and talking points.

The bulk of the hourlong meeting was about 20 powerful trade lobbyists speaking about how business could benefit from less government regulation.

Rep. Jack Kingston said holding meetings in front of the camera doesn’t always mean things can’t get done.

“Trust me, I have been in rooms where [the press] are in and rooms where [the press] all are out and it’s two different atmospheres and they are both good, they are both productive, but they are just different,” the Georgia Republican said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Transparency advocates at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation said the forum was a step in the right direction.

“As politicians experiment with including the public in their more deliberative work, some public conversations will be more meaningful than others,” Policy Director John Wonderlich wrote in an e-mail. “In ten years, we’ll probably all have a much more nuanced sense of when it’s appropriate (or necessary) to have live coverage, and when it isn’t. For now, we’re going to see a lot more experimentation and political maneuvering until we find the right balance.”

Rep. Kevin Brady said that if Republicans retake the majority in the fall, they should make every part of the legislative process as open as possible, but not so open that it discourages private discussions and bipartisan consensus building on certain legislation.

“We also ought to encourage the fact-finding, brainstorming and the small group discussions where you are looking for common ground,” the Texas Republican said. “Those don’t always lend themselves to a TV camera.”

Conference Chairman Mike Pence suggested the litmus test should be whether the public “has a right to know” about the debate inside a meeting.

“Where there are moments of deliberation, the American people ought to have a seat in the room,” the Indiana Republican said.

But Pence noted that there were exceptions, such as meetings of the Republican Steering Committee where committee assignments are voted upon and assigned.

“Sometimes it is necessary in human interaction to have a degree of confidentiality to respect the people that are involved in the process,” he said. “It’s not legislation, it’s legislative assignments. You want to be fair to all the parties.”

Pence noted that the House Republican Conference opened closed-door meetings twice over the past year — once during President Barack Obama’s speech to the GOP during its retreat in Baltimore and again before the House voted on the health care reform package in March.

Rep. Greg Walden, who is leading a House GOP project on Congressional transparency, predicted open conference meetings would remain infrequent.

“I’ve never been a fan of opening conference,” the Oregon Republican said. “We are a family, in effect. … People may like watching family reality shows where everything is televised, but I’m not sure it makes the family work better together.

“Both parties have shut the other out, and that’s not to say it won’t happen again, but the goal would be to be as transparent and to be as inclusive as possible,” he said. “Our goal should be open all the time and then there has to be a pretty high threshold to close.”

Kingston, who hosts a private weekly salon for Members and GOP staff called the Theme Team, agreed it was critical for lawmakers to have a place where they could speak candidly and without fear of retribution.

“It’s very important that people have sanctuary where they can actually have a real dialogue and it’s OK to be wrong,” Kingston said. “Sometimes I don’t know that I’m wrong until I tell you why I think I’m right.”

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