Yesterday, several outlets reported that the Democrats would "almost certainly" forgo the official conference process to get a health-care bill passed, opting instead to negotiate largely behind closed doors. Now, C-SPAN and other media outlets are criticizing the plan's lack of transparency.
Many reform proponents painted this as a valiant move on the part of Democrats to protect the American people from the procedural stalling tactics of Republicans:
Now that both the House and Senate have passed health care reform bills, all Democrats have to do is work out a compromise between the two versions. And it appears they’re not about to let the Republicans gum up the works again.
The problem for health-care reform proponents, though, is that it isn't just Tea Party activists and the GOP who are complaining about the opaque nature of the process now, and Obama himself promised to have negotiations aired on C-SPAN during a debate in January of 2008. Chances are he could have talked himself out of this contradiction a year ago, smoothing things over with an "I've consistently said" or two, but no longer.
Rick Klein of ABC's The Note, this morning: "We can all have a laugh at how ridic it was to expect hcare talks to be on C-SPAN, but it was a promise that's been shattered."
When a liberal replied, on Twitter, that she'd seen hours of discussion of health-care on the floor, he answered: "that's great but the pledge went far beyond cmte & floor debate to talks where things actually got hashed out. that wasn't on TV."
C-SPAN's president Brian Lamb has also joined the mix, sending a letter asking for the negotiations to be televised:
“As your respective chambers work to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate health care bills, C-SPAN requests that you open all your negotiations, including any conference committee meetings, to electronic media coverage.”
The link to the full letter is here.
This weekend, ABC's Jake Tapper gave Robert Gibbs a chance to make good on Obama's campaign promise, but Gibbs declined with his characteristic soft touch:
"Well, Jake, first of all, let's take a step back and understand that this is a process legislatively that has played out over the course of nine months. There have been a countless number of public hearings. The Senate did a lot of their voting at 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning on C-SPAN. A lot of this debate -- I think what the president promised and pledged was so that you could see who was fighting for their constituents and who was fighting for drug and insurance companies…"
"Well, but the bill gets put together on the floor of the Senate," Gibbs said. "That's where the bill got augmented. And I think if you watched that debate -- I don't know -- I wasn't up at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning for a lot of those votes, but I think if the American public had watched -- has watched the committee process play out in both the House and the Senate, watched the process play out on both the floor and the -- the floor of the House and the floor of the Senate, you'd have seen quite a bit of public hearing and public airing, and I think quite frankly, people have a pretty good sense of who is battling on behalf of thousands of lobbyists that are trying to protect drugs profits and insurance profits, and who's fighting on behalf of middle-class Americans hoping once and for all to have access to affordable insurance and removing insurance company restrictions like discriminating against people that are sick."
Note to Gibbs: When you're stressing the openness of the Senate process, it's best not to mention that votes took place at 1 and 2 a.m. on weekends, when you weren't even awake.
Politifact calls this promise officially broken.
For a bill that's faced a thousand p.r. obstacles in its legislative marathon, the coalescing conventional wisdom suggests this last effort to get it over the finish line may shape up to be another obstacle itself. And even if it works, which it very well may, the president will have to chalk up another chunk of political capital and another huge chink in his reputation as an honest, change agent.
Update: Oops, probably not the best day for David Plouffe to send out an e-mail to Obama supporters about how 2010 will be a year to "improve transparency in Washington to elevate the voices of the American people."