MINOT, N.D. — Let me start this post by answering my own question from the headline: Yes, they're a good idea.
Now let me play the devil's advocate.
Currently, the North Dakota Legislature has a mostly-excellent video streaming and archive system. It allows people to watch live proceedings on the House and Senate floors. You can also watch archived floor sessions, complete with links to speeches by specific lawmakers or discussions of particular bills.
Now lawmakers are pushing forward with a pilot project to bring that system into committee rooms.
The proceedings in those rooms are already wide open to the public. Anyone can attend them, and even speak at them, though you have to be in Bismarck for that sort of thing. After the fact, you can even request audio recordings of the meetings. I've often received a digital copy of the meeting the same day I requested it.
Still, a live video feed of the committee hearings, complemented by an archive, is still a big step.
Is it the right step?
The arguments against, from some lawmakers, are not very persuasive.
Cost is one such argument. "If we're putting this kind of money into it and only 15 people are watching it, I think we have enough stuff here that's available for people to get the information," Sen. Oley Larsen, a Republican from Minot and aficionado of meme-based conspiracy theories, said.
The price tag put on expanding the video system is about $1 million per two-year budget cycle. Which is a lot of money for you and I but really not that much money in terms of the overall state budget. There are perhaps some cost savings to be realized, too, if Legislative staff has to handle fewer requests for audio and other committee hearing information from people like me.
Making the video available at that price is reasonable even if only a couple of dozen people watch.
Another argument, this one coming from Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson), hits a bit closer to the target.
"There is more interest in what's going on here than I've ever seen since I've been in the Legislature, and it comes from the two extremes," Wardner told the Bismarck Tribune. "The far right and the far left are watching what goes on."
I don't like that last bit.
Do you know what another term for people who are "far left" or "far right" might be?
Yet there's a grain of truth in Wardner's comment. Putting cameras in the committee rooms is going to change the nature of the proceedings there.
There's even a term for it. It's called the Hawthorne effect and it describes people who "modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed."
I've listened to a lot of committee hearings over the years, and the discussions there are often refreshingly candid. Sometimes painfully so, given the propensity of some lawmakers to say very dumb things that are also honest reflections of how they feel.
Would the spotlight of live streaming video change that? If anyone on the internet can, with relative ease, dig up pretty much anything any lawmaker said in a committee hearing, wouldn't that alter how lawmakers behave?
Might they be less candid? More prone to politicking and grandstanding?
I think that's inevitable.
Go back to Wardner's quote above, where he talks about there being more interest in the Legislature than ever before (and ignore his blather about the "extremes"). That's not a situation unique to North Dakota. Thanks to the various tools of the internet, more Americans are paying attention to what the politicians are doing than ever before, from the local to the national level.
Taken at face value, that's a good thing, but it's often left politicians little room to maneuver. They're elected by voters who want them to take their platform of issues and ideas into government with uncompromising fervor, and those voters are paying attention. Any sign of deviation brings backlash, which means fewer politicians than ever before are willing to compromise.
And, absent compromise, the government sinks into dysfunctional chaos.
That's certainly been the case in Washington D.C. Could it happen in North Dakota too, as more and more voters engage?
Maybe, though that's still not a good enough reason to deny voters video of committee hearings.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.