Let the Sun Shine In on Final Health Care Debate

One of the key items President Barack Obama campaigned on was his promise to transform government and restore Americans' faith in government, which had in 2008 fallen to a historic low. He repeatedly spoke on the campaign trial about making government transparent and even proclaimed in 2007 that he would open up the health care debate, which he noted had been negotiated largely behind close doors in the Clinton era "in isolation from the American people."

Obama even invoked C-SPAN by name during the presidential race, vowing, "We will work on this process publicly....It will be on C-SPAN. It will be streaming over the Net."

This week, Brian Lamb, the Chief Executive of C-SPAN, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging the Administration to open up the final health care negotiations after the Democratic leadership opted to conduct the final negotiations between the House and Senate bills behind closed doors, thereby shutting out not only C-SPAN and all press, but the public too. Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi is getting in on the act by gently chiding the president on this issue by noting regarding Obama's campaign promise to have open hearings: "There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail."

So far neither President Obama nor the Democratic leadership have indicated if they would allow C-SPAN in and open up the hearings to the traditional conference committee process, which is open to the press. That is a mistake. There is a golden opportunity to "let the sun shine in" and keep this process open. After all, allowing the House and Senate bills to be hammered out into a joint bill behind closed doors only allows lobbyists to barter and trade the bill into an even worse state as the bill is slowly chipped away piecemeal through various side deals. We already have lost a robust public option which would have helped control spiraling out of control costs and provide some competition to the private insurance companies. What else will be lost in the final negotiation? While that may be the norm for last minute legislative wrangling, we have a chance to do it differently here. President Obama should deride the way that bills have for years been handled and not cede this ground. Republicans, who protest that they and the press are being excluded from the debate, need only look at the similar way in which Republicans excluded Democrats from the process in the Prescription Medicare Drug bill in the Bush Administration.

This issue of how bills are finally shaped is a non-partisan issue, in that it simply transcends either party, as both are culpable of adhering to the same behind doors, back room wheeling and dealing. Democrats are fearful that if they open up the process to conference committee, Senate Republicans will filibuster and delay the process. While delay would of course be unfortunate, it is worth the price to have a better bill on the most important social issue of our time. Indeed, we should have a health care bill that has been shaped by a clear process where Americans know what they are getting and how the insurers' feet are being held to the fire.

There are those who argue that it is not practical to have these conversations in the open, as deals need to be struck and openness would hinder that. Deals will be struck no matter what, as private conversations and agreements between individual legislators will always occur. What we are talking about here is allowing the American public into the debate and decision-making process that affects their future.

As I write this, I had an eerie flashback to the transition period after Obama had just been elected President. I wrote this almost exactly a year ago on Huffington Post:

President-Elect Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to make government more transparent and to make the White House the "people's house." Yet the Obama transition team is missing a golden opportunity to allow that transparency to extend to the President-Elect's transition team.

The transition team is refusing to allow the release of any records or documents related to contact between its office and Governor Blagojevich and his staff, citing that such records are not obligated to be disclosed under the law. While that is legally correct, President- Elect Obama is missing the opportunity to champion a reform of the misguided legal standards which do not compel disclosure of transition team records and allow Presidential transition teams to operate in virtual secrecy. Such a move would be as much about breaking with the secretive disclosure practices of the Bush Administration as it would be about helping to restore faith in government which is at an all time low. President-Elect Obama is precisely the right person who can once and for all argue that the way Presidential transition teams operate needs to change.

The sun did not shine in on that issue, and now we have to urge the Administration to take a different tactic here by letting transparency be the rule of the day. Such a decision will ultimately lead to a better health care bill and one that Americans can truly say they are vested in and understand.