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Opinion » Editorial

Jeff Merkley's Cozy Silicon Valley Party

National Innovation Conference attendees listen to panel discussions whose participants included senators as well as executives from high-powered firms such as Microsoft and assorted venture capitalists.

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It was just an intimate, friendly little gathering on the Google campus in Silicon Valley.

The host was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The star attraction was Joel Benenson, President Obama's pollster. Also featured were seven Democratic senators, including Oregon's own Jeff Merkley.

It was billed as a "National Innovation Conference." Attendees at the two-day event got to listen to panel discussions whose participants included the senators as well as executives from high-powered firms such as Microsoft and assorted venture capitalists.

For the admission prices they paid, they deserved to see the Super Bowl, the World Series and three or four hit Broadway shows: "Hosts" were asked to kick in $30,400, "sponsors" were required to pony up $10,000, and "guests" paid $5,000 apiece for their tickets.

But the people who paid those prices weren't paying for entertainment, of course - they were paying for the chance to snuggle up to politicians who will be making decisions about matters important to them, including antitrust policy, patent laws and Internet regulation.

The non-partisan group Consumer Watchdog gave this conference a sniff and thought it had a funny aroma to it. It sent a strongly worded letter to the seven senators urging them to back away.

"Senators should discuss public policy issues in open forums accessible to anyone who is interested," the letter said. "The public must not be locked out of a policy discussion that is taking place behind closed doors of a donor-funded forum because average Americans cannot afford the price of admission."

Merkley's chief of staff insisted that everything was perfectly kosher: "There were no public policy matters being decided in that room," he said, adding that the event was a "discussion of broad topics of American competitiveness and innovation" and there "was no particular discussion of legislative issues."

Since there were no reporters in the room, we don't know how true that is. And in such settings the private schmoozing that goes on between the executives and the pols is more important than what's said from the podium.

The "conference" in Silicon Valley last week was part of a growing trend by both parties to use issue-focused events to rake in campaign cash. As the Politico blog wrote, "With health care, regulatory reform and climate change rumbling through Congress, candidates and campaign committees for both parties see an irresistible opportunity to cash in ahead of the pivotal 2010 midterm elections. Scores of fundraisers by candidates in both parties are tailored specifically to the issues dominating action on the Hill - a public policy discussion that happens far away from the general public."

Consumer Watchdog was unsuccessful at persuading the senators to back out of the conference and it went ahead as planned. We're confident it was a big success for the DSCC.

Regrettably, it wasn't a success for the cause of open government. It's doubly regrettable that Merkley, who's proclaimed himself a champion of open government, chose to take part in it. We're giving him THE BOOT in the hope it will increase his ethical sensitivity.

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