Transparency, transparency, wherefore art thou?

By Frank Hagan | Related entries in health care reform

Congressional leaders are planning to hold “secret” meetings instead of the traditional public conference committee hearings to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the health care insurance reform bills.

While the GOP has reacted with expected outrage, the proposed “new system” of “private meetings” is generating some concern from the traditional media, as ABC News reports:

The C-SPAN television network is calling on congressional leaders to open health care talks to cameras — something President Barack Obama promised as a candidate.

Instead the most critical negotiations on Obama’s health plan have taken place behind closed doors, as Republicans repeatedly point out. In a Dec. 30 letter to House and Senate leaders released Tuesday, C-SPAN chief executive Brian Lamb asked for negotiations on a compromise bill to be opened up for public viewing, as Democrats work to reconcile differences between legislation passed by the two chambers.

The C-SPAN letter (pdf file) is a pretty straight forward request. It makes you wonder, what are the Democrats trying to hide?

As ABC News sums up:

Obama pledged during a presidential debate in January 2008 that he would be “bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are.”

Will the Democrats live up to their promises for openness, or will they continue to draft legislation in the back room?

Cross-posted to FrankHagan.com


This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 and is filed under health care reform. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

26 Responses to “Transparency, transparency, wherefore art thou?”

  1. Tweets that mention Donklephant » Blog Archive » Transparency, transparency, wherefore art thou? -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Skwerl Says:

    wherefore means why.

  3. WHQ Says:

    Why do we need all the whys and wherefores? It seems redundant.

  4. Frank Hagan Says:

    Skwerl, its a paraphrase of Shakespeare, of course, and in the context of the play (Romeo and Juliet) is usually thought to mean:

    Although we use “wherefore,” if at all, as a synonym for “why,” Juliet uses the word in a more limited sense. By “wherefore?” Juliet means “for what purpose?”

    In this case, I’m using it in the headline as a kind of ironic statement that the rhetoric about “openness and transparency” was obviously not intended to show what the Administration would actually do, but was for some other purpose.

    Obama lied.

  5. gerryf Says:

    OK, this is a lame defense as frankly i agree with absolute transparency.

    But…..

    First, you say these are “secret” meetings instead of the traditional public conference committee hearings. Your use of “secret” was intentionally misleading.

    Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the so called ping pong meetings have been used before (oh gosh, by REPUBLICANS!) so they are hardly this never before seen super sneaky Democratic tactic. Indeed, these kinds of meetings are always going on throughout the legislative process.

    Second, everyone also knows WHY they are doing it–because the Republicans have vowed publically to do everything they can do derail the process. They didn’t just hint at it, they’ve been saying it loudly to anyone who will listen. What good is a conference committee where half of committee’s goal is not to discuss anything, but block everything?

    Next, you call Obama a liar. OK, I am not going to be intentionally obtuse and say that Obama doesn’t have any say in any of this, but this is still a LEGISLATIVE process. Now, with the exception of Dick Cheney who was niether a member of the legislature or executive branch while simulataneously being in both, Obama has thus far followed the constitutional process where legislators legislate.

    Sure, he has an influence, but unless your copy of the letter from C-span differs from mine–and since I got mine by clicking on your link–you see that it is addresses to house and senate leaders, not Obama.

    Now, I am not too happy with some of the secrecy issues you can lay at Obama’s feet, and if you wish to criticize those, I am with you, but I have to ask where were you during the most secretive administration since Nixon?

    Could you at least pretend to be not completely partisan?

    They are not interested in open and public debate, they are interested in blocking and impeding any Democratic accomplishment.
    The problem is that these “secret” meetings are really not secret meetings and traditional public conference committee hearings

  6. David Says:

    I believe the charge that President Obama lied is in regards to his stated ambition to run the most transparent administration ever. At the very least he is not living up to that standard.

  7. Nick Benjamin Says:

    @David
    Who was more transparent then Obama? Since Lincoln.

    Because, if nothing else, the proliferation of technology makes him a lot more transparent then any of those guys.

    @Frank
    Traditionally conference committee meetings are not televised. I’m not sure they’re public, either. But nobody’s posted evidence that Pelosi decided to close these meeting to everyone, which makes me believe that a) traditionally they aren’t public, or b) she’s still letting the public in. Otherwise the GOP would be making hay over that change, too.

    Moreover Obama can’t actually do anything about this. He’s Executive branch, and this is a Legislative matter. He could go n TV and urge Pelosi to televise the dang things, but she has every right to ignore him. He probably shouldn’t have made a promise he couldn’t keep, but hey. He’s a politician. It’s not his fault most Americans think the President runs everything, despite the fact that when they were 12 their Civics teachers made them learn about Separation of Powers.

    Part of the problem with running on transparency is that, at some point, it becomes an illusion. Hard decisions require hardball negotiations, which imply lots of deceptively untransparent things like brinksmanship. Thus the hours of televised debate re: health care in the Senate accomplished nothing, besides giving lots of Senators the opportunity to mouth BS while standing in front of pretty charts. The secret Gang of Six meetings, followed by Harry Reid’s secret reconciliation of the two Committee bills, followed by secret negotiations between Reid and a handful of Dems got the bill through.

    Other times you promise to provide data as soon as you have it, only to discover the guys who input the data didn’t know what they were doing. This you have stimulus dollars being spent in Congressional districts that do not exist.

  8. Doomed Says:

    If they are willing to do this. They are willing to install a public option as Reid promised any bill going to the president will have. Abortion language will be reinstalled and the process will pass the house and the senate will use the nuke option to pass it with 51 votes.

    “Because they know whats best for America.”

    As for transparency I believe NO government can operate in full disclosure mode. However that being said…..if this democratic Tyrannical congress had more trust of the American people its closed doors meetings would garner little more then a raised eyebrow.

    There was actually a time when most of Americans trusted what their congress people were doing in their stead. When we actually had an MSM whose agenda was pulitzers and not partisan hackery we as Americans felt as if someone was watching the guards of the chicken coup.

    Today with the exposure of the massive corruption by these “Gentlemen” Americans feel that the hen house is no longer protected.

    What I do find ironic is how the Right cheered the passing of the PATRIOT ACT……because it was GOOD FOR AMERICA…..and the left was Fit to be tied…marching in the streets…screaming, hollaring, Calling Bush Hitler etc…etc….etc.

    Now we have the left cheering this health care bill because it is GOOD FOR AMERICA….and the right is marching in the streets, screaming, hollaring and Calling Obama Hitler etc…etc….etc.

    I dont blame them for being behind closed doors. The problem is that this bill will wreak such havoc on America that it will doom health care in this nation to a ptiful resemblance of what it used to be.

    We need health care reform that makes the system better but this….no one likes this bill…..left, right, center….Many Dems and Most nearly all Republicans.

    WHY are we passing this bill?

  9. David Says:

    @Nick:

    The degree of transparency I desire is directly correlated with the seriousness of the topic of discussion. The health care reform legislative effort is generally agreed to be *very* important – it’s a significant modification in the way a non-trivial portion of the American economy works.

    The whole approach to crafting the health care legislation has been secretive and deceptive: witness the WH creating a form for people to “inform” (definitely not a friendly term) them of “disinformation” about the bill over the summer. Another example is the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach to funding and costs.

    For a big change to be successful and welcome, there should be broad agreement on the generalities, and the details should be the parts which get hammered out. With regard to health care, that broad agreement does not exist.

    So to answer your question, Clinton’s WH was more open with regard to health-care legislation – it was crafted privately and then revealed openly *before congress voted on it.* Bush 43′s WH was more open with regard to the arguments for going to war in Iraq: they presented their case to Congress in public and on CSPAN, and Congress agreed.

    President Obama’s WH has done a good job with opening the visitor logs, but not with regard to making the outlines of his desired policies open and available.

  10. Nick Benjamin Says:

    @Doomed
    The nuke option you’re referring to does not work with a Conference Committee. Reid has to propose a Conference Report, and it needs 60 votes to pass. The alternative (using Reconciliation in the Senate) will require both Houses to start over completely, and would be extremely stupid politics.

    In other if Harry Reid even thinks of trying it health reform dies, and the Dems lose significant ground in November.

    @David
    Remember 6th grade? The teacher made you learn a phrase “Separation of Powers.” That means Obama can’t order Congress to do anything. If they wanted to pass legislation in a secret code that they refused to disclose to anyone (including him) they could do it.

    In other words even if your evidence (that Congress has been extremely shady re: health reform) is correct your conclusion does not follow.

    As for your statements on health reform in Congress I have to point out that until August there was broad consensus. The most important of the Committees working on the proposal was the Senate Finance Committee, and it’s working group included three Republicans and three Democrats. The proposal is modeled on Mitt Romney’s plan for Massachusetts,and has major similarities to plans proposed by Dole and Nixon.

    Moreover I just don’t think we have time to scrap the plans the GOP liked last June for a more “consensus-based” approach. There are no proposals I can see that would actually work that would increase the consensus. Remember: liberals are just as important to a consensus as conservatives. In theory we have a few decades to plan, but a) we don’t know what will actually work, so the various pilot programs in the Senate bill will be very useful in the future, and b) historically when a health plan is defeated it takes about 20 years before anybody has the balls to propose a new one.

  11. Tully Says:

    For all the apologists for this secret back-room health care deal-making…

    HEH.

    Pants on fire.

  12. David Says:

    @Nick

    No reason to be hostile. There is in fact a reason why this is popularly called “Obamacare” and not “Pelosicare.”

    The phrase I would look to rather than separation of powers is “bully pulpit” – President Obama has made some pretty bold statements about wanting business to be conducted differently. Either he was speaking out of turn, and promising things which are not his to deliver, or he has not been successful in delivering those things he promised.

    I would contend that the burden of proof regarding major change (i.e. health insurance reform) is and should reside with those who want the change, and the impression I have is that said burden of proof has not been met. This is part of why this package of changes is so unpopular.

  13. Frank Hagan Says:

    Guys, Candidate Obama promised, REGULARLY, to televise the debate “so the American people would know what is going on”. See YouTube for an example of some of the promises.

    In his meeting yesterday with Reid and Pelosi, held in private, he could have easily, as head of the Democratic Party, requested that they convene a regular Conference Committee and invite C-SPAN to it. He could have opened that meeting, as he promised to do. But the fix is in, and the closed door, backroom meetings are designed to eliminate the kind of input that democracies regularly engage in, and deny the public the chance to see the process. The Sunlight Foundation notes:

    Recently adopted and long standing House and Senate rules require conference committees to be generally open to the public. Both House and Senate rules require that all conference committee meetings be open to the public unless a majority of conferees votes in open session to close the meetings. Senate rules require all conference committee reports be publicly available for at least 48 hours prior to a final vote. Without conference, there is no mechanism to provide for openness in the final discussions regarding the health care bill.

    President Obama promised that all bills would be posted under “Sunlight Before Signing”, and he has kept his promise … for 6 of the 124 bills he has signed.

    I don’t think its unfair to hold Obama to the standard he set for himself.

    Finally, there are some things governments must do in secret for national security or personnel privacy reasons. Drafting health care legislation is not in that category.

  14. kranky kritter Says:

    I have no trouble distinguishing between “more transparency” and “total transparency. The former is presumably desirable. The latter is plainly unrealistic.

    Seems to me that there’s overwhelming agreement, at least among grown-ups that for complicated deals to take place, the principals may need to be able to speak frankly and in private.

    So this doesn’t bother me at all. Not from the perspective of allegedly breaking a campaign promise, and not from the perspective of singularly unseemly behavior. Neither dog hunts.

    Let’s face it. “The sausage factory must be televised” is a position of temporary convenience, unless you’re extraordinarily naive. It was largely a position of convenience when Obama strummed it then, and its a position of convenience now that Obama’s opponents are doing the strumming. I for one don’t give a sh!t. Didn’t then. Don’t now.

  15. Trescml Says:

    The Dems are taking the road of political expediency over transparency. Since there was a grand total of one Republican vote in the House and Senate combined, it will be quicker for them to get together come to an agreement and then ping-pong the bill between the House and Senate. We will still get to see plenty of “You suck–No you suck” debate on the subject.

    The Dems are likely to take less hits on transparency than on further delays on the health care bill so I can’t really blame them from a political perspective, but it can be a slippery slope when political expediency trumps substance.

  16. Tully Says:

    Sounds like more apologetics to me, kranky.

    Seems to me that there’s overwhelming agreement, at least among grown-ups that for complicated deals to take place, the principals may need to be able to speak frankly and in private.

    As someone with long experience working under and with open meetings laws, I call BULLSHIT on that particular claim. As in “complete and utter.” This is not a discussion of classified national security issues. Also BULLSHIT on the insinuation that disagreeing with that particular bit of politburo claptrap makes one less “grown-up” or “”extraordinarily naive.” A few Congresscritters and our national scapegoat decided to send not just the nation but the entire rest of Congress representing over 90% of the nation off to the kiddie table so the grown-ups could talk about Santa Claus!

    So this doesn’t bother me at all. Not from the perspective of allegedly breaking a campaign promise, and not from the perspective of singularly unseemly behavior. Neither dog hunts.

    No “allegedly” about it. PANTS ON FIRE. Compare and contrast:

    Heh.

    Often and prominently made. Not just by Obama, but by Pelosi as well. And:

    The decision was made in an Oval Office meeting Tuesday evening with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., joined in by phone.

    They agreed that rather than setting up a formal conference committee to resolve differences between health bills passed last year by the House and Senate, the House will work off the Senate’s version, amend it and send it back to the Senate for final passage, according to a House leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private meeting.

    Obama himself will take a hands-on role, and is convening another meeting with congressional leaders at the White House on Wednesday. Pelosi and four Democratic committee leaders are expected to attend.

    As for “unseemly behavior,” one notes that bills are routinely debated and amended on the floor, and competing House/Senate versions hashed out in conference committees that are OPEN TO THE PRESS AND THE PUBLIC. Not to mention open to the rest of Congress.

    YOU may prefer to be kept ignorantly in the dark, but personally, if I’m going to be screwed against my will anyway, I want the lights on. And witnesses.

  17. kranky kritter Says:

    As someone with long experience working under and with open meetings laws, I call BULLSHIT on that particular claim. As in “complete and utter.”

    Right. And the open meeting laws don’t lead to any need for small group private discussions. Ever. All negotiations and deals happen in the light and in public. And everyone gets a pony and a rainbow, too.

    I don’t recall Obama promising 100% transparency all the time, so like I said previously, I’m not troubled now.

    You are of course correct that Obama alluded to televising healthcare reform negotiations and didn’t follow through. So that promise was broken. Regardless of whether he said “I promise to…” he implied that was the way to go about it.

    Oh well. I suppose this would trouble me a lot more if it hadn’t sounded like such a dreadful idea when he previously mentioned it. When I heard it, i figured the outcome would be that almost no one would watch it, but that partisans would do their best to extract misleading decontextualized statements, amping up the circus.

    BTW, I though you said you were going to be too busy to blog. LOL. What happened? Obamacare just crawled too far up your @ss for you to eschew venting? I feel you, amigo.

  18. Doomed Says:

    Nick

    Reid has said that he could pass a government-run health insurance program, known as the public option, under reconciliation.

    He could easily pass this health care bill and then flop down a public option using the reconcilliaton process and voilla you have what he promised.

    I personally think its coming.

    If he doesnt do this. The democrats lose big in 2010. If he does it they lose in 2010 but not big because the base will be energized.

  19. Ed Harris Says:

    Should we surprised? They wouldn’t dare televise the proceedings on C-Span. It would be like watching “To Catch A Predator”!

  20. Nick Benjamin Says:

    @Doomed
    He could do that. But he could also decide to dye all his suits pink.

    He won’t, at least for this Congress, for a couple reasons. Number one it would piss off several members of his caucus. Including some folks who love the public option. And as Lieberman proved when you’ve got exactly 60 votes in the Senate pissing off one guy is an extremely stupid idea. If he was getting major political pressure from the unions, or Obama, he would consider it. But he’s not.

    As for the folks whining about transparency:
    Yes Obama promised it. He shouldn’t have, because he can’t deliver, but he did.

    @David:

    I would contend that the burden of proof regarding major change (i.e. health insurance reform) is and should reside with those who want the change, and the impression I have is that said burden of proof has not been met. This is part of why this package of changes is so unpopular.

    I have yet to hear from a single wonk who does not believe major reform is inevitable, because without that reform the country is bankrupt. Moreover they all seem to believe sooner is better.

    Most of the non-wonks who say otherwise are fairly easily convinced otherwise — the CBO, for example, projects that Medicare alone will crush the budget in a few decades. It’s possible to be an intellectually honest person who has looked into the issue and opposes this particular set of reforms, but it is not possible to be an intellectually honest person who looked at the issue and decided everything is fine.

    As for the questions about the program I know it could be a lot better, but doubt a superior program could actually get through Congress. As I believe this plan would be a massive improvement over the current system I support it anyway.

    Moreover I just don’t see a massive change over the current system. Yeah it’s expensive, but did you think reforming 1/6 of the economy was gonna be free? But the only government program it creates is an Exchange which is the insurance equivalent of a farmer’s market. It kills Medicare Advantage and cuts projected Medicare cost growth; but both moves are inevitable if we don’t want to be running massive deficits in 2030.

  21. Frank Hagan Says:

    Doomed, I think Reid said he would insert a public option during the conference committee process rather than the budgetary process of Reconciliation (that doesn’t require 60 votes). You could be right that he will force the bill through on a simple majority if he has to; I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

    Nick, the problem with the program is the level of subsidies, paid for by young people through compulsory insurance laws. Couples earning up to something like $80,000 a year can receive some form of subsidy in Reid’s plan. Rather than allowing more free market forces to go to work on medical costs, government subsidies will enable the costs to rise. And there are no reforms to actually try and let competition and innovation lower costs. (Today, innovation raises costs in medicine, the complete opposite of how it works in computers, business automation, etc., due to the restrictions on using new technology … it is always “in addition to” the recognized standards of care instead of “in place of”.)

    When you look at other heavily subsidized areas, such as higher education, you see that costs rise much faster than inflation. Subsidies allow the costs to rise above market levels, cut them and the downward price pressure works well. An example in medicine is “vanity screens”; you can get a full body cat scan for a few hundred dollars, with a report prepared by a radiologist, in the private market. If your doctor prescribes the same scan, insurance is billed thousands of dollars. Because the patient never sees the bill, he doesn’t shop for the best price.

    Except for some of the proposals put forth by doctors who are in the House and Senate, none of the proposals really address our problems in health care. We will spend a lot of money, have the same mortality rates we would have anyway, and face increasing costs. All the while sacrificing liberty for a bit of (health insurance) security.

  22. Elizabeth Says:

    Here is some more information about why some lawmakers don’t want conference committees televised: http://www.newsy.com/videos/health_care_transparency_in_question

  23. Doomed Says:

    because without that reform the country is bankrupt.

    In 2009, benefit payments for the four parts of Medicare are
    expected to total $484 billion (Figure 2):
    • Part A – Hospital Insurance (HI) = 40% (including home
    health which is partially funded under Part B)
    • Part B – Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) = 28%
    • Part C – Medicare Advantage (private health plans) = 23%
    • Part D – Prescription drug benefit = 11%

    Shortfall of 390 billion per year…cutting 50 billion per year is going to do what exactly?

    Average per capita
    Medicare spending
    among top 10%:44,200 dollars.

    Average per capita
    Medicare spending
    among bottom 90%:
    $2,934

    Someone tell me that in 10-15-20 years we wont be telling that 10 percent to drop dead?

  24. Nick Benjamin Says:

    @Frank
    You’re half-right. We need stronger cost controls or we’re screwed. This bill is useful because it buys us some time by saving a little money (and in health insurance, over a 20-year time-frame, $11 Trillion is peanuts), and it includes lots of stuff we can use to control costs more later. The pilot programs will give us a lot more data to work with, and it won’t be hard to add a Public Option to the Exchange in 2011. According to the CBO that knocks a little more off our health costs.

    Where you’re wrong is the idea that health insurance is not already heavily subsidized. Everyone who has employer-bought health insurance receives a de facto government subsidy because the insurance premium is income, but it’s not subject to the income tax. If you add in the VA, Medicare, medicaid, etc. our government spends health care more (per capita) then France,and every single dollar spent is a subsidy.

    In other words the nightmare scenario you describe is already happening. These subsidies will actually help the situation somewhat. They’re money people are spending, so the cost is much more visible to the consumer then it was before and the Senate bill reduces the subsidies to employer-bought plans significantly.

    BTW,
    Can anyone tell me a substantive difference between a “subsidy” and a “voucher?” ADFAIK it’s entirely semantic.

  25. Frank Hagan Says:

    @Nick, we agree that subsidies increase the cost of health care. If consumers paid for the tests they receive they would question the number of medical tests they are given.

    So knowing that subsidies increase costs, why do we want to increase the subsidies?

  26. kranky kritter Says:

    So knowing that subsidies increase costs, why do we want to increase the subsidies?

    Ooh, ooh, Mr Kotter, pick me! The answer is “because of the presumption that the subsidy decreases costs for the folks being subsidized.

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