Imagine a hearing room in the U.S. Senate. Imagine men and women trying to navigate the issues that surround health care in America and negotiate a solution.
Now imagine that the doors to the room are closed, and that the participants remain unidentified, and that, in fact, “Senate aides had threatened to expel anyone who divulged details of the work group,” reports The New York Times:
Since last fall, many of the leading figures in the nation’s long-running health care debate have been meeting secretly in a Senate hearing room. Now, with the blessing of the Senate’s leading proponent of universal health insurance, Edward M. Kennedy, they appear to be inching toward a consensus that could reshape the debate.
The 20 or so people in that room sitting around tables arranged in a square, says The Times, “include lobbyists for AARP, Aetna, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the Business Roundtable, Easter Seals, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and the United States Chamber of Commerce.”
Well, I’m not inside that room, and neither are you. And we should be, because President Obama said we would be.
In a memorandum on the White House website headlined “Memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies,” President Obama said:
Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. …
Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. [emphasis in original]
Now, these “talks” have not been arranged at the behest of the White House. Sen. Ted Kennedy and his aides have done so — and he ought to know better than to discuss such an issue behind closed doors. In its news story, The Times offers this thinly disguised opinion (surprise!): “It is not clear whether such back-room negotiations are still viable at a time when politicians are promising a new transparency and condemning the influence of lobbyists.”
Well, duh. The president promised transparency. But on health care, the White House has tolerated the secrecy and “has been kept informed and is encouraging the Senate effort as a way to get the ball rolling on health legislation.”
The “workhorse group,” as characterized in a summary by Senate aides, has addressed such questions as “how to enforce the requirement for everyone to have health insurance; how to make insurance affordable to the uninsured; and whether to require employers to help buy coverage for their employees.”
Health care constitutes 15 percent of gross domestic product. As a policy issue, it is probably responsible for more anxiety in the public’s mind than any other.
The public should be in that room. It should know what is said and who said it. At least provide a transcript posted on the White House website.