Saturday, June 14, 2008

What does the GOP rules committee have to hide?

Republicans who wanted to attend a meeting of the party’s rules committee were greeted by a rather ominous sign Thursday evening. “The use of any electronic recording equipment will not be allowed during any meeting of the rules committee including but not limited to video or audio recording.” After enquiring further, I was told that the committee passed a rule banning recordings. I believe the committee’s action is ill-advised, improper, and inconsistent with the principles of open government. I will explain my concerns in more detail later.

But in all fairness, I would say that Republican Party of Texas spokesman Hans Klingler handled my concerns (and a rather pointed question) on this topic diplomatically and professionally, which is in marked contrast to several of his predecessors.

“I don’t know that there is fear on anybody’s part,” said Klingler in response to my question on the matter. “As they pass these rules each convention, certain parameters are set up around those meetings. I think it is something that definitely is going to be addressed. You and I visited about it last night. And I know that, obviously, you are a 110 percent open meetings guy and we respect that. Obviously, the party in its platform also agrees with that. I think it’s something that will definitely be addressed and taken up, and I brought it to the chairman’s attention.”

I hope Tina Benkiser (the chairman of the Texas GOP) does take this seriously. Here’s why I disagree with the rules committee’s action:

1. It’s totally unnecessary. Yes, the current leadership of the party has its critics who are vocal. But recording meetings makes it harder – not easier – to misrepresent what was said.

2. Every local and state governmental entity in Texas is required to allow recordings at its meetings (Government Code, section 551.023). Why should the Republican Party do in the conduct of its affairs what its elected officials are prohibited from doing. Let me be clear here, I’m not necessarily accusing the GOP of breaking the law. But just because something might be legal doesn’t make it right.

3. The Republican Party of Texas accepts public funds to administer its primary, and its rules pertain to such matters as the allocation of delegates, selection of presidential electors, and review of the platform by the party’s elected officials. (The party should be careful about arguing it’s a purely private entity. The Texas Democratic Party made that argument in the early part of the 20th century when defending a segregated primary, something Republicans emphatically reject.)

4. The Legislature does have some requirements for transparency in the party’s operations, which shows this is not a purely private matter. The election code discusses the composition of the state executive committee (section 171.002), requires filing of the party’s rules with the secretary of state (section 163.005), requires notice to delegates of the party convention (section 174.093), and expressly requires admittance of the print and broadcast media (section 174.002).

5. Democrats don’t do this stuff. The Democratic Party had a very tense discussion over who would be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. The meeting was conducted in public with tape recorders running, despite the disagreements and acrimony.

6. The rules committee’s actions create the appearance of a lack of transparency, which validates some of the claims the leadership’s critics make about the conduct of the convention.

The party is in a rather unique position. It’s not purely a governmental entity. The party could justify, for example, closing a meeting on which races to target financially. On the other hand, it’s not a purely private organization either, as it runs public elections.

The State Republican Executive Committee can’t have it both ways. Many of the party faithful believe that executive committee resolutions and the platform are the product of the elected representatives of the grassroots and as such merit an almost binding deference from the party’s elected officials. Well, the downside of elective office is one has to take recorded votes on controversial issues, which someone might criticize or voters might decide to use as a basis for not re-electing an incumbent. (The party in its own platform calls for recorded votes on all bills.) The party’s officers can’t expect the deference accorded to elected officials without the public accountability associated with elective office.

I hope the party addresses this matter on its own. If not, the Texas Legislature should address it in 2009 by applying the Texas Open Meetings Act to both major party conventions and any committees of those conventions.

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