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Transparency sought in health care talks

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010

C-SPAN is now not the only major news organization to make a formal request that talks on health care reform legislation occur in the open, as promised by President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) on Tuesday demanded "more openness and transparency" over the massive, $900 billion legislation, known in its current form as "America's Affordable Health Care Act of 2009 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act."

The group — which represents high-profile leaders of multimedia news organizations, journalism school deans and First Amendment experts — criticized what it called "back-room negotiations" over health care that should take place in full, open committee proceedings.

"We have been monitoring these bills in the House and the Senate and evaluating our members' needs in terms of gathering news and information they can use to inform the public," said ASNE President Martin Kaiser.

"It is now clear that there is an inexcusable level of secrecy surrounding this landmark legislation, especially as the current proceedings are likely to produce the final version presented to all members of Congress. To so profoundly affect the American public through closed-door proceedings is an affront to one of the core values of democracy," Mr. Kaiser said.

Public trust is at stake, the group says.

"Openness is not a partisan matter; in fact, it's quite the opposite, often serving as one of the uniquely unifying factors for those with differing views," Mr. Kaiser added.

Both the House and Senate have passed health care reform bills. But they differ in many ways, and the chambers' leaders have to iron out those differences in conference committee, a process usually done behind closed doors.

Mr. Obama the candidate had promised that under his administration, such discussions would take place in the open, to prevent Washington back-door horse-trading. The White House has since backed away from that.

The White House did not respond to an e-mail request for comment Tuesday.

Concern for the public also motivated C-SPAN chairman and CEO Brian Lamb to play hardball.

In a Dec. 30 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Mr. Lamb also issued a formal request that Congress shed light on health care negotiations, and open the talks up to media coverage.

"President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation's editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation's health care system," he wrote.

"Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American," Mr. Lamb wrote.

The president clearly vowed such transparency on the campaign trail during the 2008 presidential election, a fact made painfully clear in a video montage that showed Mr. Obama vowing that all discussions about health care reform would take place before the nation.

Americans are in favor of an open legislative process. For example, a survey conducted by the Palm Beach Post found that 91 percent of the respondents backed televising the negotiations.

The Houston Chronicle was among other news organizations requesting the same thing.

"Count our voice among the growing chorus in favor of opening the final debate and negotiations over health care reform to C-SPAN's cameras. This is not simply making good on a campaign promise by President Barack Obama; it is the right thing to do," the newspaper said in a Jan. 15 editorial.

ASNE appears willing to be satisfied even with minimum exposure.

"While we prefer the maximum openness of televised debate that allows direct and unfettered access for everyone, we hope that, at a minimum, the rest of Congress' work is done in on-the-record, open committee meetings that allow for press coverage and public attendance," the group said.