Why It's Bad News That the Health Care Conference Committee Will Be Held in Secret

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To follow on Chris's post yesterday, I want to point out that a lot of activists have been insisting that there's a Nixon-esque "secret plan" in the works -- only not to end the Vietnam War, but to make the health care bill radically better than the gutted carcass that passed the U.S. Senate in December. In general, I don't believe in the Secret Pony Plan Theory (ie. the theory that says that when any politician we're supposed to love does something awful, it's actually part of a secret 15-dimensional plan to do something awesome) -- never have, never will. Politicians do things because they are forced to do things, not out of the goodness of their own hearts, and if there ever is a secret plan, it's usually to pull one over on the public.

As it relates specifically to health care, I especially don't believe there's a secret plan to make the bill better in conference committee for two reasons.

First and foremost, it's a good rule of thumb that from a progressive perspective, most bills get worse -- not better -- in conference committee. These negotiations are where lobbyists have their most influence, because much of the wheeling and dealing is done through winks and nods, and because everyone knows the final product is an inexorably moving train that both chambers will likely pass. I defy you to name more than a few bills that have gotten markedly better -- rather than markedly worse -- in a conference committee.

Second, if there is any hope of making a bill better in conference committee, that hope relies on the conference committee negotiations actually being open to the public. But that's not guaranteed -- not even close.

Sure, there is always a final conference committee vote -- but the real, most pivotal work of ironing out the different bills can be done behind closed doors. On many conference bills, the one party in control holds secret meetings, and then all the public gets to see is one two-minute vote for final-passage and that's it.

This doesn't have to be the way it's done -- and in many cases it isn't (I spent many a long night in contentious and controversial Appropriations conference committees when I worked on the Hill -- and they were public). But on health care, it looks like the closed-door approach is now the way forward, according to some stenography by The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn:

According to a pair of senior Capitol Hill staffers, one from each chamber, House and Senate Democrats are "almost certain" to negotiate informally rather than convene a formal conference committee. Doing so would allow Democrats to avoid a series of procedural steps -- not least among them, a series of special motions in the Senate, each requiring a vote with full debate.

Cohn, regurgitating his Democratic sources' spin without so much as a question, couches this turn of events as wonderful news because it will disenfranchise congressional Republicans and expedite the process. It's a classic authoritarian argument. And as I wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle piece about American Czarism way back at the beginning of 2009, I'm someone who believes in democracy - so I'm not inclined to cheer at anyone's disenfranchisement (I know, that sets me apart from the cynical and partisan DC chattering class). That's particularly true when when said disenfranchisement impacts not just the GOP, but also rank-and-file progressives.

You see, if there was even a tiny chance this bill was going to get better in conference committee, that chance was, in part, reliant on progressive pressure on an open process. Ya know, pressuring individual conferees on specific amendments, etc. But if the conference negotiations take place in secret, that progressive public pressure is far harder to muster and to appropriately target. This is probably why Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is none too pleased about the news.

I still remember the good ole days when President Obama promised to make sure that all the health care negotiations would be televised on C-SPAN. I didn't think that would happen (although I was hoping he'd try), but I did think there would be at least a modicum of transparency in this process. That we've gone from promising all negotiations would be televised for everyone to see to potentially a situation where the final, most important negotiations are locked behind closed doors is sad -- not just from an objective transparency/democracy perspective, but, as you can see, from a progressive final-legislative-product perspective.

UPDATE: C-SPAN has now issued a formal request to televise the secret House-Senate health care negotiations. Wonder how Democrats will respond...

UPDATE II: The Iowa Independent produces a 4-minute video clip of Obama going over - in explicit detail - why these specific negotiations should be public and not secret, saying that the difference between true transparency and secrecy is the difference between real reform and failure. Watch it here.

UPDATE III: Here's the first DC think tanker actually arguing that transparency in the most basic legislative processes is somehow evil. Never thought I'd see that kind of open loathing of democracy - but, alas, there are still firsts and new worsts, even for the Beltway crowd.

UPDATE IV: Asked about the discrepancy between candidate Obama's pledge of full C-SPAN viewable transparency in the health care negotiations and President Obama's embrace of secret negotiations (both in Congress and between the White House and PhRMA), White House press secretary Robert Gibbs actually insists there is has been no discrepancy at all and that the current process was "very similar to what the president envisioned." I'd say this is a classic example of the Mad Men 2.0 strategy of today's cynical politics whereby Washington operatives offer up full denials in the face of verifiable facts.