Editorial: Behind Closed Doors

Posted October 20, 2009 at 4:24pm

Part of what killed former President Bill Clinton’s push for health care reform in the 1990s was the perception that the bill was crafted wholly behind closed doors. Members of Congress from both parties felt as if they were shut out of the process — and rightly so. With little investment in the success of the bill, most Members did not feel the need to overly extend themselves to ensure its passage. Sure enough, it sank like a stone.

Critics of President Barack Obama’s health care reform campaign — including some of his most enthusiastic supporters — have accused him of taking too much of a hands-off approach as Congress did its work crafting legislation over the past few months, and it’s a legitimate gripe. But at least by letting Congress take the lead initially, Obama ensured that the process would be fairly open. House and Senate committees held numerous hearings on health care reform, and deliberations over competing bills in two Senate committees were lengthy and public. It wasn’t always pretty, but the transparency was laudable.

But all that sunshine has been blotted out in recent days, as Senate leaders work to meld the bills that emerged from the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. All of a sudden, we don’t know what’s being done — or when, or by whom.

By most accounts, the job of hammering out what gets voted on in the Senate is falling to three men — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who helmed the deliberations at HELP in the absence of his good friend, the late HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

No one is questioning the right or the wisdom of these three men to be in the room. But the secrecy of the proceedings, particularly given where we’ve come from in the previous few months, is disturbing — as is the lack of diversity in voices shaping the final product. There are no Republicans in the room. If any other Members of Congress have been invited to participate, we’ll never know it.

We do know the White House is involved — and, as far as we know, the president’s top health care adviser, Nancy-Ann DeParle, is the only woman participating. On the other hand, we don’t know what the administration is pushing for.

We are realistic enough about the ways of Capitol Hill to know that not every last negotiation will be — or must be — carried out in public. But the sudden silence from the Senate seems like a slap at all the stakeholders who have invested so much in the health care debate — not to mention the taxpayers who will be asked to foot the bill for whatever reform plan does get adopted.

Democrats on Capitol Hill rightly cried foul when the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, held secret meetings at the White House to craft a new energy policy. They should remember their umbrage — it wasn’t that long ago — and act accordingly.

We thought white smoke heralding a secret decision was confined to the Vatican. But apparently that’s the way Senate leaders want to conduct their business now.