Democrats Have a Stimulus, But You Can’t Read It

February 12, 2009 5:47 a.m.

During the first six years of the Bush administration, when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, they were rightly infamous for ramming through controversial bills without giving Democrats time to read the legislation — let alone provide any input or offer amendments.

The tales of abusive and aggressive GOP behavior are legion, from one chairman cutting off Democrats’ mikes when he grew tired of a hearing on the Patriot Act to another chairman’s snide crack that House-Senate conference talks were only open to members of Bush’s “coalition of the willing.”

John Cole, at Balloon Juice, references the latter episode to argue that GOPers should stop complaining and be grateful that Democrats allowed them into a televised conference meeting yesterday. He misses the point entirely. Here’s why the most loyal Democrat should be concerned — not angry, not ready to write off the Obama administration, but concerned — about what happened.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.

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