The conference meeting yesterday was nothing more than a performance for the cameras, or a "showcase for speeches," as the Times called it. allowing Democrats to claim that they were holding "the first open conference in 15 years" when the particulars of the deal were being hammered out in private.
It's not that Republicans were being excluded from the process. On the contrary, GOP leaders who had already vowed to oppose the stimulus were given no access, with good reason -- but the three GOP senators whose votes were necessary to pass the stimulus were given plum prizes for their preferred programs and virtual veto power over certain provisions.
Who was excluded from the process? Everyone outside the private negotiating table, regardless of their party. One senior Democratic senator, when I asked him at 6pm last night whether one of his proposals was retained in the final stimulus, replied without blinking that no one knew what was in it yet. This was hours after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had announced the "deal" before TV cameras.
Reporters who asked for a summary of the agreed-upon deal last night were told to wait, because "policy staff ... are drafting final bill language tonight," according to a House Democratic memo. Aside from a top-line number of $789 billion and a battle over school construction, the nitty-gritty details of the stimulus were publicly unavailable.
Contrast this with President Obama's promise to put bills online five days before signing them.
Now, it may be that grassroots Democratic voters don't mind the party's practice of writing bills among a select group of lawmakers and aides, excluding liberal members who don't hold major chairmanships. But it's wrong to suggest that the process was open and transparent, even when compared with the GOP years.