It may be a new year, but congressional Democrats are planning the same old sorts of sleazy tactics in their bid to take over America's health care system. Congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate, should not let them get away with it. Transparency and ethics should be Republican rallying cries, and obstruction on those grounds should be a point of pride.
By now it's almost trite to complain that President Obama repeatedly has broken his campaign pledge to "broadcast [health care] negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are." That doesn't make the complaint invalid. For legislation that could so profoundly and personally affect the daily lives of every American, Congress and the White House should be more transparent and more accessible than ever before. Instead, the process has been secretive and sordid throughout.
The House passed its version of the bill on a Saturday night. The Senate held its key procedural vote at 1 in the morning, and then provided a lump of coal in our stockings by forcing full passage of its bill on Christmas Eve. The House leadership banned consideration of all but one amendment not offered by leadership itself - forbidding debate on more than 150 of them - then provided just 24 hours for members to study the bill's final text. The Senate leadership inserted so many tawdry last-minute items that analysts are still finding jokers in the deck 11 days later.
All these shenanigans have driven approval for the government health care bills even lower in public polls than the strong majorities that already opposed them a month ago. Yet that hasn't fazed congressional leaders. Now comes word from multiple sources that not only will Congress refuse to televise the usual Conference Committee to reconcile the two chambers' versions of the bill, but it won't allow a formal conference at all. Instead, a chosen few negotiators will concoct the final version out of sight, without formal rules governing the process and without a single Republican at the table.
Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, candidly told a Jan. 3 home-state Democratic gathering that the sleight-of-hand is intended to enable his colleagues to avoid any more tough votes until the one on final passage. David Dayen of the liberal Web site Firedoglake reported from the meeting that, "this will not be a traditional conference committee, Waxman said, because the motions to select and instruct conferees in the Senate 'would need 60 votes [in the Senate] all over again.'"
(Corrected paragraph:) Back in October, Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, offered this simple resolution: "Resolved, that it is the sense of the House of Representatives that any conference committee or other meetings held to determine the final content of sweeping national health care legislation be held in full public view and not behind closed doors."
If congressional leaders do not abide this simple request, Republicans should bring the whole Senate to a halt. Senate rules provide for so many procedural obstacles, if a determined minority wants to exercise them, that the entire body could be tied up in knots for weeks on end. In the name of open and accountable government, that's what senators should do if the public interest continues to be trampled.