Monday, March 19, 2007

Where's my Senator? -- Part II

How were we to know that a last-minute afterthought in yesterday's Sunday Roundup would be what drew criticism?

We'll let The Western Word speak for itself regarding the belated appearance today on Jon Tester's website of 5 days of schedule. (And yes, even we paleolithic types know how to refresh our browsers -- we posted after TWW, and the last thing we did late yesterday before posting was to do just that.)

There will be no argument from anyone at Montana Headlines that Rehberg's office mis-stated the level of schedule that they were prepared to hand out to anyone. There will furthermore be no argument that a simple "you're right, you got us on that one, our bad" would have been far preferable in our opinion to how things have actually been handled.

Montanans have incredibly easy access to our Congressional delegation compared to most Americans -- anyone who wants to meet one of our Senators or our Representative doesn't have to try very hard in order to do so. Even very politically active donors from larger states are envious of how easy it is for the average Montanan to meet and chat with a member of our delegation.

We imagine that it would be hard for Rep. Rehberg or his staff to feel that Montanans somehow didn't have the kind of information most people are generally interested in, and that their office has been providing for some years: "Is Denny in town, any chance I can meet with him, what's he doing today?"

Of course, what was implied by "our schedule's always been available" was that one could get the same level of specificity from Rehberg's office that would appear on Tester's schedule. Once the disconnect was painfully obvious, a correction by Rehberg's office was in order -- and pointing out that it didn't appear is fair game. We would take strong issue with how much about Rehberg's honesty (or lack thereof) can be read into this, however.

The comments on Montana Headlines did sound belittling toward those who have put personal effort into checking Rehberg out, and apologies are in order. (That may be a bit unctuous for Wulfgar's tastes, but we really can't change who we are -- sorry.)

We will make some observations on what we feel is more to the point from our perspective. We don't doubt the sincere desire on Sen. Tester's part to convey a sense of confidence in the transparency of his office (indeed, since it was a key part of his campaign against Burns, it would have been a major blunder for him not to do something innovative like this.)

But that's just the point: it is a sense of confidence and a bit of political showmanship, and not the reality of transparency. A reputation for being squeaky clean has to be earned the hard way. Showmanship is a part of politics, and Tester is certainly doing better at it in this little episode than is Rehberg. But like all showmanship, it can either portray the truth or mislead. We're claiming neither for Tester -- just stating a fact.

Remember when C-Span came along and everyone was excited because we'd be able to watch U.S. Congressional floor debates for ourselves? What we have instead are scripted snoozefests in an empty chamber by Congressmen who should be arrested for serial boredom. Meanwhile, even more of the real action than was already the case happens out of the sight of cameras.

Consider other factors. For one thing, schedules change or can be just plain wrong. A helpful reader pointed out to us that Sen. Tester's schedule for the evening of March 5 shows that he was in a Senate floor session, whereas a New York blogger gives a breathless March 6 account of New Yorkers with a "crush" on Tester having a "meet and greet" with our junior Senator just the evening before.

So, was Tester's office trying to pull a fast one then (or for that matter when 4 days went missing last week, as TWW and we light-heartedly pointed out yesterday?)

Maybe the Gotham blogger isn't telling the truth, since no meet-and-greet in New York (or travel to New York) appears on Tester's schedule for any evening near March 5. Maybe a Tester staffer just forgot to put it on the schedule. Maybe someone on Tester's staff didn't want it publicized that he was schmoozing in the Big Apple. Maybe the blog is a fake, and part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Or maybe it's not realistic to think that we can know where our Senator is at all times, who he's talking to, and about what.

In some cases, it may be nobody's business. It is hardly unlikely that there will be constituents who want to meet with Sen. Tester but who, for no sinister reason whatsoever, don't want it all over the internet. Or perhaps there is a meeting concerning something of importance to Montana, but the corporation or foreign government exploring the trade deal doesn't want the meeting all over the internet.

Anyone who thinks that Sen. Tester isn't going to have both of those kinds of meetings and either leave them off the schedule or give a misleadingly generic title to the meeting is deluded. (I won't even go into whether Tester is going to have chats with folks who have made, will make, or may make contributions to his re-election campaign -- chats that he will keep to himself, thank you very much.)

Or maybe he'll just do these exchanges by phone or e-mail to keep them technically off the schedule that way.

In either case, Montanans reading Sen. Tester's schedule are going to have a false sense of security about the level of "what Jon is doing right now," if that's the sort of thing they need to give them a sense of security about their representatives in Washington.

Call us cynical, but we suspect that soon everyone in Washington will have their public schedules just like Tester -- and they will be the equivalent of C-Span speeches to an empty chamber, while the things that we might be most concerned about take place off-camera. Meanwhile, we'll have another way to play political "gotcha" on things that, unlike votes cast and bills written, don't mean a blessed thing.


Wulfgar said...

Yeah Here's some of that off camera stuff that takes place on camera. Welcome to the blog-o-tubes. 'Just thought you oughta know ...

Wulfgar said...

I'd almost find your response humorous, if the link weren't right there in my comment. Is this some kinda Blogger trickery? Look again. The link is right there all obvious like.

Nisha Thompson said...

Hi, My name is Nisha and I am the Organizer for the Sunlight Foundation, who sponsored the Punch Clock Campaign. I wanted to direct you to our website for information on posting the schedules and to continue this dialogue about what more transparency really means.

This is exactly the kind of discussion we were hoping to foster by starting this campaign.

Montana Headlines said...

I didn't see the hyperlink on the date and time. Haven't had anyone put a link on the comments yet, so didn't know to look there. I'll delete my last comment.

Montana Headlines said...

P.S. I just discovered that the link doesn't work when I'm signed in, but only when I'm signed out -- that's why I didn't see it when I first moderated your comment. Thanks for the link.