As members of Congress return to Washington this week, preliminary talks are under way on resolving the differences between the House and Senate health care reform bills. Yet the public can neither hear nor watch the final negotiations on legislation that will affect every American. That undermines support for such sweeping change, and the negotiations should be held in full sunshine rather than behind locked doors.
President Barack Obama recognized the Clinton administration's attempt to reform health care in the 1990s failed in part because it tried to craft a complete plan in secret and expected Congress to pass it and the American people to accept it. This attempt has been more transparent — to a point. Congress held numerous hearings before the separate bills were passed, but in reality most of the key decisions were made in private. That was particularly true in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled the final version at the last minute after countless private meetings. The result was that the public had little opportunity to digest it or contemplate the impact of various side deals before the bill was rammed through the Senate on a party-line vote.
There are significant decisions left to be made about the final version of the health care bill, including whether to include a public insurance option, the extent of abortion coverage and how to pay for the changes. They should not be made in private, and the president should keep his campaign pledge to make the process transparent.
"That's what I will do in bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are," Obama said in campaign debate in January 2008.
C-SPAN has offered to broadcast the negotiations on a final health care bill. The president and congressional leaders should accept the offer and keep their promises.