Policy Documents

Harry Reid Fights to Keep Health Care Talks Secret

January 11, 2010

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi work behind closed doors to mash together 4,765 pages to form America’s new health care regime, one last antagonist has emerged to fight their efforts: a meddling little activist organization known as C-SPAN.

In a letter from Brian Lamb, C-SPAN’s chairman and CEO, the television network requested that since the most meaningful debates about health care policy are now taking place behind closed doors, and since President Barack Obama promised during the 2008 campaign that all health care reform negotiations would be broadcast on C-SPAN, the network be granted full camera access to the conference meetings on Capitol Hill.

The request was immediately rejected by Speaker Pelosi, who insisted the process was already transparent enough. “There has never been a more open process for any piece of legislation,” she told reporters.

The respected Lamb, familiar to many C-SPAN viewers for his tenure as an onscreen host and a longtime hero to advocates of open government on both sides of the partisan aisle, must have known his request would meet with such disdain. Only Reid and Pelosi have the power to grant his request, and the White House—as on so many other matters—has no apparent interest in pushing the Hill leadership to honor Obama’s campaign promise of transparency.

Conference meetings are where the real dirty work gets done in the legislative sausage-making process. In these secret meetings, parts of bills can be fundamentally changed, added, or removed entirely, all with the knowledge that members will have only the opportunity for an up-or-down vote on the full legislation.

The process on the health care legislation is even more secretive than others because the conference committee is not formally named, instead consisting of whomever Reid, Pelosi, and the White House want in the room.

It’s a fitting end for a health care bill that began with similarly secretive steps and for the most part has been constructed behind closed doors. The Washington Post accurately described Reid’s process for fashioning the Senate bill as “an invitation-only affair” that left out any dissenting voices, even on the Democratic side. It was only recently discovered that, in an undisclosed meeting last spring, Reid and Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) met with big-money corporate lobbyists to arrange support for the then-unformed health care legislation, support that would eventually come in the form of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of television ads promoting the reform package.

Those industry lobbyists were in the room then because the businesses they represent stand to benefit from this massive expenditure of taxpayer dollars. By spending to support this overhaul, they were buying a seat at the table in the secret discussions taking place today—a chance to make sure they weren’t on the menu.

Unfortunately, the ordinary citizens who will be stuck paying the bill for this legislative monstrosity aren’t in the room and aren’t even allowed to know what is being done to them and why.

The late Sen. Daniel Moynihan once said that in stark contrast to the secrets and lies of the Soviet Union, the American people have the freedom and ability to know about their government’s actions and respond. Would Sen. Moynihan be able to make that same statement today, under the reign of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid, when no common American can ever know what negotiations are taking place? What would he say about today’s senators barking about principles for the cameras while selling them behind closed doors for chunks of cash and kickbacks?

Speaker Pelosi, clucking at C-SPAN’s audacity with the eagerness of Madame Defarge, insists this is a transparent process. And so it is—transparent in its betrayal of every principle constitutional government stands on. How foolish for the American people ever to think the Capitol belonged to them.

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org), a former political appointee in the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News.