President Obama promised at least eight times during the campaign to have the legislative negotiations over reforming health care televised on C-Span. That has not happened and, in the final sprint to the finish line, will not happen. The letter from Brian Lamb, the head of C-Span, merely brought the obvious out into the open.
Republicans, naturally, are having a field day comparing Obama’s oft-repeated promise of openness and transparency with the reality of a few congressional Pooh-Bahs (none of them Republican) and White House aides meeting at unannounced times behind very closed doors. When they are done, a vast bill will be rushed to each congressional floor and voted on with just as much dispatch as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can manage. If no one except the negotiators even has a chance to read the bill, let alone consider it in depth, before the final vote, so much the better. It will then pass, unless some Democrats — looking over their shoulders at the increasing number of their fellow party members who have decided to spend more time with their families — figure out that their political survival requires defying the party bosses. And it will pass on a strictly party-line vote. The most significant piece of domestic legislation since the New Deal will pass without a single Republican vote.
Who is to blame for giving the Republicans such as wonderful cudgel with which to beat President Obama and the congressional Democrats over the head? Well, it was that political genius Barack Obama. It was a dumb political move on his part to have ever suggested open negotiations, let alone promising them over and over.
Real negotiations — as opposed to questioning witnesses and debating on the floor — are never held in public. If they were, political opponents and lobbyists would be hanging on every word. The give and take, the thinking out loud, the tentative suggestions, the horse-trading that are so much a part of any negotiation would be impossible when every casual phrase, recorded on C-Span’s camcorders, might be turned into an attack ad for the next election.
When the most momentous negotiations in American history — the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — met for the first time, the members of the convention agreed to strict secrecy. Sentries were posted at all doors. The windows — in a sweltering Philadelphia summer — were kept closed, a discreet member of the convention always attended Benjamin Franklin’s convivial dinner parties to make sure the great man did not talk too much. James Madison’s notes (by far the most important source we have for what went on) were not published until 1840, after all the delegates to the convention were dead.
The Founding Fathers did a pretty good job in those secret meetings 222 years ago. They created what is perhaps the only work of genius ever produced by a committee. The attendees at the secret negotiations over health care will probably not fare as well in the opinion of history. They are not founding a republic, after all; they are trying, with increasing desperation, to get a dirty deal done.