Evidence of meeting #84 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was debates.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Janet Brown  Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

We're going to start a minute early because we have such a great witness here.

Welcome to the 84th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, as we continue to study the creation of an independent commissioner responsible for leaders' debates.

If it's okay I'd like to just pass our routine budget for our meals, witnesses, and so on, which was handed out. Does anyone have any objections to that? Anyone opposed?

Then it's carried. Thank you very much.

I'd like to welcome to the committee the esteemed Mr. Preston, the former chair of this committee. Welcome back, Mr. Preston.

We are pleased to be joined by Janet H. Brown, executive director of the United States Commission on Presidential Debates, who is appearing by video conference from Washington, D.C.

Thank you for participating in our study. I know the members of our committee have been anxiously awaiting your presentation, so we're really happy you're here today. You get to make some opening remarks, and then committee members get to ask questions.

The members will have seven minutes each to ask you questions and answers; the questions and the answers add up to the seven minutes.

Go ahead with your opening remarks, please.

Noon

Janet Brown Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Good day to everyone there. Thank you for this opportunity. It's a great honour to be discussing this issue with all of you, and I hope this next hour will be a productive one. I have very brief opening thoughts to share, and then I look forward to having the greatest amount of time focused on the questions that are of concern to you.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization based here in Washington, D.C. It is governed by an 11-person board of directors. We have no ties to the federal government or to any political party or campaigns. We receive no public funding from the government or from party sources. We are not congressionally chartered. We look the way we do in large part because there are rules that are enforced by the Federal Election Commission that govern debate sponsorship during the general election period, meaning the last two months after the nominating conventions.

One rule is that a debate sponsor needs to be either a media organization or a not-for-profit, which is what we are. If you are not, you then are in peril of violating campaign contribution laws. In either case—a media or a not-for-profit—you must have pre-published objective criteria to determine who will be invited to debate. Ours are generally issued one year before the debates. We were started in 1987, and we have both sponsored and produced all of the debates since then. Obviously, there are three very important, large constituencies when it comes to debates. One is the public. Two is the participants. Three is the media that both disseminate the signal and cover the debates.

The commission is here to represent the public. It is obviously a part of doing debates that you need to coordinate and work very carefully with the media, whether it's about selecting dates for the debates, or about their coverage. We work very closely with federal law enforcement. We work with the campaigns. Our main constituents are the public. If the debates do not educate the public and help them make an informed decision on the candidates, they have not succeeded.

All of our debates have been 90 minutes long. In the last four to five weeks of the general election period, they are carried without interruption, commercial or otherwise, by all of the major networks under what we refer to as the White House pool basis. I can comment on this if this is of interest, but essentially it means that the cameras that are in the debate hall are owned by one network. They are putting out a signal that is picked up and broadcast by any member of the pool. It can also be purchased by non-members of the pool for a reasonable fee.

The CPD selects the dates, the venues, the formats, and the moderators, and decides who will participate in the debates. We do not lobby, poll, represent candidates' positions on the issues, or work on any kind of effort that is designed to either encourage people to register or to get out and vote. We have a very narrow charter that was in the original documents filed with the District of Columbia to incorporate the commission in 1987. That really summarizes who we are, what we do, and the way we are organized. I would stop here and welcome your questions.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you very much. That's great.

It's great to have a model to listen to.

We'll first go to Ms. Tassi, for seven minutes of questions and answers.

Noon

Liberal

Filomena Tassi Liberal Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas, ON

Mr. Chair, please give me a signal when I've had about half my time, because I'm going to be sharing it with Ms. Sahota. That would be appreciated.

Thank you for your video testimony today.

Can you share with us how you think social media and online platforms can play a greater role in improving electors' access to debates?

12:05 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

Social media essentially are media. They are commercial media companies. They have come onto the scene with a presence that has grown dramatically in the last few years. They play a significant role in engaging younger people in particular. One of the things we have tried to wrestle with, Ms. Tassi, is that in this country there has been an effort by social media to put themselves in a unique category that requires unique care and attention in terms of their ability to play a central role in the debates.

We believe there's no question that they should be accommodated in terms of space to be on site and covering debates. They clearly have significant capacity to bring to the discussion about issues that will be raised in the debates and leading up to the debates, and to have online discussions that would involve and engage people who otherwise may not find this interesting or accessible.

One needs to remember that at the end of the day, a debate-sponsoring organization is in the business of at least a couple of important things. One is securing the agreement of the candidates to participate. Without that, there are no debates. The second is focusing on formats that will create the most informative content that you can, and then saying to media companies of whatever variety, “Please cover this. Please engage your audiences in the lead-up to the debates. Please use this in any way that you believe will excite people about learning more about the candidates and the issues.”

At least for a very small organization like we are, it's important to let the social media companies take the lead on how they can do that in the sphere they are present and thriving in.

December 7th, 2017 / 12:05 p.m.

Liberal

Filomena Tassi Liberal Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas, ON

Further to that, what would you suggest or share with this committee with respect to the success of bringing all the parties together? Are there certain tips or advice you can give us in terms of ensuring that the partners are able to work together in getting information out to the public, that, for example, as many broadcasters are carrying it as possible, that there's buy-in, and that people are happy?

Can you share with us the structure of what you have set up, what you have learned from it, and the successes you've had in that?

12:05 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

The media are inherently competitors. They all want each of us to come to their outlet to consume news, entertainment, or whatever kind of programming it is.

It has been very important for us to make sure that every member of the media, whether they are new or old, print or electronic, online or otherwise, knows that what we do can be trusted, that it is neutral, professionally produced, fair to all participants in a given debate, and that there is no thumb on the scale when it comes to selecting moderators or formats that may be seen as giving one participant or another a leg up, an advantage. It is something that we work at very assiduously.

When we pick dates, for instance, we realize that we are going into a time of year that is particularly busy and important for networks. They are starting new programming, doing the baseball playoffs, and starting the football series.

I've learned a lot from reading all of the testimony by your previous witnesses. Clearly, whether it's hockey in Canada or the World Series here, those are very valuable time slots that you are asking commercial entities to give over to carrying a debate in real time. There are inevitably conflicts, and there will be times when you discover that a major television network has a contractual obligation that they cannot avoid. It is interesting that some of our highest viewership has occurred even when one of the major networks had to carry a baseball playoff game because they had that contract with Major League Baseball.

I think the bottom-line answer to your question is that it is extremely important to approach these media entities early to explain the process, to hear their concerns and input, to try to reconcile their concerns with decisions that are made about the debates, and to get key decisions made very early and announced early. We announced the dates and venues for the debates a year ahead of time because, to some extent, certainty helps in terms of all of these other entities doing planning.

Our teamwork with the networks is extremely important to us. In spite of what one of your witnesses who comes from that world said about our being a sham and a racket, I would hope that members of the White House television network pool would say that they think dealing with the commission is straight up and honest. There are no surprises. There are no secrets. We try to hear their concerns and to be as accommodating as it's possible to be.

In the United States anyway, there is no night that isn't someone's sacred cow, and you are going to run into nights that have big commercial value to the networks. That's just a fact, but that is one of the reasons why, in having networks serve as debate sponsors, there is an inherent conflict: they want to be profitable entities. They have the right to want that, but it means that when you're trying to sponsor a debate, there's an inherent conflict built into that.

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

Filomena Tassi Liberal Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas, ON

Okay. Thank you.

I'm sorry, but we've eaten up all the time, so we'll have Ms. Sahota in the next round.

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Okay. Thank you very much.

You can rest assured that we don't think you're a sham and a racket, or we wouldn't have you here today.

12:10 p.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Mr. Nater.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Ms. Brown, for joining us via video conference today. It's great to have your insights from south of the border.

I want to start with some of the more logistics-type issues of the commission. Obviously the commission's work would ramp up in an election year versus a non-election year. Does the commission have permanent staff outside of an election year? How would that compare to an election year in terms of the amount of staff the commission may have?

12:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

You're looking at the permanent staff, Mr. Nater?

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Yes.

12:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

At the moment, I have the great privilege of having an assistant that is running circles around me: we are it.

We will have a grand total of maybe five people in the office when we are at full strength, but we have an outside production staff that has roughly seven key leaders to it, starting with our executive producer. When their teams are put together, it's a production staff of roughly 65 people. They are all professionals in the area of television. They have their own companies. They do very high-stakes live TV, ranging from the opening of the Olympics to states of the union, summit conferences.

They come together to do our production and they're involved as need be, with increasing time devoted to this, obviously, as you get closer to the debates themselves. The commission has outside legal counsel, financial, and accounting, but it's a very small operation.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Are the production staff affiliated at all with private broadcasters or are they independent of the private broadcasters?

12:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

They are independent.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Okay. Very good.

You mentioned that you receive no public funding for the work you do. What's the order of magnitude in terms of the cost of the commission during an election year, and where would that funding typically come from?

12:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

Debate year to debate year, obviously, it goes up. There is a now a lot of security required, and it didn't used to be. In 2016 an individual debate cost just shy of $2 million, which, as those of you who are television experts know, is extremely inexpensive television.

We raise our money from any sources that would be permitted for us as a not-for-profit organization under the Internal Revenue Service designation that we qualify for, so essentially our fundraising is done the same way that an educational or a religious entity would do it. We raise the money from foundations, corporations, and sometimes individuals, and the money for each debate itself.... We have held almost all of them on college and university campuses, given the fact it's very consistent with the educational purpose of the debates. When we go to a campus, that campus is asked to raise the funds that their debate will cost. Those funds are paid to the commission and in return we pay all the bills.

The budget varies depending on how much money we can raise in an individual debate cycle. We like to have a cushion so that we're enabled to do some educational work and, increasingly, to do the inspiring work we're doing with a 32-member network of international debate organizations that are all NGOs, many from emerging democracies that want to start their own debate traditions, having watched the U.S.

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

We understand that the memorandums of understanding, the contracts between the commission and the two parties, are typically not released to the public. How does the commission deal with requests to release those MOUs? What's the reasoning behind keeping those MOUs confidential?

12:15 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

It's easy for us, Mr. Nater, because we in fact are not parties to the MOUs. That is a common misunderstanding. We have nothing to do with them. Quite often, the campaigns will do an MOU that addresses a variety of issues, including items such as what use can be made of debate footage, for example, can it be used in campaign ads or for other uses?

The commission has never been a party to those agreements and never will be. It is entirely up to the campaigns as to whether they choose to release the MOU. I think that in some cases they don't want to release it because some of the provisions look a little bit less than monumental in their scale of concern given the importance of this election contest.

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

You mentioned in your opening comments as well that there's an 11-member board of directors at the commission. Would you be able to share with us how those members are appointed and who is typically sought to fill that 11-person board?

12:15 p.m.

Executive Director, Commission on Presidential Debates

Janet Brown

The commission was the direct result of a study that was conducted at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1985, which was co-chaired by former secretary of defence Melvin Laird and former DNC party chairman Robert Strauss. It was a 40-person body that studied a number of different election-related issues, including debates. The one item they reached consensus on was that there should be an independent entity that does nothing but debates, that does not do anything else that might pose a conflict.

The original members of the commission board were largely chosen from that group of people, which was a 40-person group that included leadership from all the different sectors of society. There is a provision in the bylaws that says there will be a nominating committee within the commission's structure that will look at names of people who might be recruited to serve on the commission.

One of your witnesses mentioned that we are “bipartisan”. We are non-partisan, and I think that right now the board is probably evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats, and independents in terms of how they would self-identify.

We look for people who have had some experience that would make political debates at this level a familiar experience, who understand that they have to be completely neutral in their decisions regarding the debates and the participants, and that even if they have previously been involved in partisan politics, this is a place where, to quote current and founding co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, no one wears a party hat: they wear a U.S. of A. hat. You look for people who will understand that this is an unusual role to be playing during a general election. It is one that people feel strongly enough about that they're willing to take part in what are quite often some very difficult decisions and criticism.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you very much.

Now I'd like to welcome to the committee former House leader, the Honourable Peter Van Loan, and also Pierre-Luc Dusseault.

Now we'll go to Mr. Dusseault from the New Democratic Party.

12:15 p.m.

NDP

Pierre-Luc Dusseault NDP Sherbrooke, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I am always happy to be at this committee.

I'd like to go back to the context and history that preceded the foundation of your non-profit organization. I am interested in how you went about ensuring your credibility.

In Canada, it would not be easy to create such an organization and attempt to demonstrate its credibility with political parties to organize or supervise debates.

How did your non-profit organization historically ensure its credibility in regard to organizing debates?