Health care reform didn't die from a lack of transparency.

How to fix health policy.
Jan. 27 2010 3:23 PM

In Praise of Backroom Deals

Health reform didn't die from a lack of transparency.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online. See images from Obama's first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

"Part of what I had campaigned on was changing how Washington works, opening up transparency, and I think it is—I think the health care debate as it unfolded legitimately raised concerns not just among my opponents, but also amongst supporters that we just don't know what's going on. And it's an ugly process and it looks like there are a bunch of backroom deals. Now I think it's my responsibility and I'll be speaking to this at the State of the Union, to own up to the fact that the process didn't run the way I ideally would like it to and that we have to move forward in a way that recaptures that sense of opening things up more."—President Barack Obama apologizing to one-time Nixon aide Diane Sawyer of ABC News for breaking his stupid campaign promise to put all health care negotiations on C-SPAN.

It doesn't worry me that he said it. What worries me is that he may believe it.

American politics has never been more transparent than it is today. You can watch Congress on C-SPAN. You can slice and dice political campaign contributions on the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site, OpenSecrets.org or go direct to the source on the Federal Election Commission's Web site. You can riffle through White House aides' financial disclosure forms and find out who's been visiting the White House. You can even see the newest U.S. senator in the nude.

Advertisement

Want to follow health care reform? The hearings and markups of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are archived here, the Senate health committee's hearings and markups are archived here, and the Senate finance committee's hearings and markups are archived here (under "September 2009"). Every print document relating to the House and Senate bills that you could possibly want is available here.

In the ABC News interview, Sawyer said, "A lot of people think you must say at the end of the day, this is not who I was in 2008, these deals with Nebraska, with Florida." That obviously irritated the president, who replied: "Let's hold on a second, Diane. I mean, I think that this gets into a big mush. So let's just clarify. I didn't make a bunch of deals. There is a legislative process that is taking place in Congress, and I am happy to own up to the fact that I have not changed Congress and how it operates the way I would have liked."

But the real problem isn't that Obama failed to transform Congress into a magical place where legislation is so obviously virtuous that base horse-trading is unnecessary. The problem is that Obama (if we take him at his word) wouldn't dirty his fingernails in the service of extending health insurance to somewhere between 31 million and 36 million of the 45 million people who don't have it.

After defending the health care bill to Sawyer on its merits, Obama abased himself over the special deals secured by the last Senate holdouts: "[T]hat doesn't excuse the stray cats and dogs that found their way into legislation." Obama probably felt he had to say that because the "Cornhusker Kickback" and other sweetheart deals apparently enraged the public and may have helped Republican Scott Brown win his special election in Massachusetts. But Obama surely understands that this sort of legislative deal-making has always been routine in Washington; indeed, the city itself exists as a result of such deal-making. Must we also condemn the Compromise of 1790 because it bought off Southern legislators who previously blocked the federal assumption of state debt by locating the capital on the Potomac River?