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?

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.