After lampooning the Bush administration for secrecy, President Obama used the same legal arguments as his predecessor to block the release of logs showing which industry executives met with the White House to help formulate his health care policy. The new administration abruptly reversed course Wednesday evening after being accused of hypocrisy and released a list of more than a dozen meeting attendees.
Among the more than dozen executives identified as weighing in with presidential advisers on health care during February were Richard Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association; Billy Tauzin, the former congressman who heads the drug lobby PhRMA; Angela Braly, chief executive of WellPoint Inc.; and Jay Gellert, chief executive of Health Net Inc.
The episode turned the tables on Mr. Obama, who during the 2008 presidential campaign accused Vice President Dick Cheney of unnecessary secrecy in refusing to identify which energy executives weighed in on energy policy early in the Bush years and who criticized his primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, of doing the same thing during the 1993-94 health care debate.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the administration, after the Secret Service refused its request for information on visits from executives representing health insurers, hospitals, doctors, drug companies and other interests. CREW said it was seeking the records in an effort to gauge the extent to which the industry players had affected Mr. Obama’s health care policy.
In response, the Secret Service said the visitor logs were presidential records, not executive agency records, and therefore exempted from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - the same legal argument used by the Bush administration.
After CREW issued a press release criticizing the administration’s lack of transparency, the White House sent the interest group a letter with a list of names, saying it was acting in recognition of the “compelling public interest in the health care debate and the president’s goal of increasing transparency in government.”
Mr. Obama addressed the matter during a prime-time news conference Wednesday that focused primarily on health care, saying the list of visitors has never been a secret.
“Most of time you guys have been in there taking pictures,” he said referring to the press in attendance.
But CREW said it was not satisfied with the material because it omitted information that would be in the White House logs, including the times and purposes of the meetings and the names of the officials who invited the guests.
“Sending us a letter is not the same as releasing the records. There is a lot of information in those records that is not in the letter,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said. “Releasing names for political expediency is not the same thing as transparency. This is not the type of transparency they promised.”
Also, CREW said there is no indication that the information in the letter is complete, and that there may well be records of other visits not included.
“It is not sufficient for the White House to release certain visitor records shortly before a press conference to avoid distraction,” according to a statement by CREW.
Even liberal blogs such as MyDD.com criticized Mr. Obama on Wednesday, pointing out that his repudiation of closed-door governing is still on his campaign Web site.
Mr. Obama “will amend executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public,” according to the site, which is now titled Organizing for America.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama specifically pledged to open negotiations over a health care bill to the public.
“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,” he said during one Democratic primary debate.
Mr. Obama and other Democrats repeatedly attacked Mr. Cheney for refusing to release records of private individuals who met with Mr. Cheney’s energy task force early in the Bush administration.
Mr. Cheney and others argued that the White House could not hold sensitive and confidential talks with top industry players in many cases if the meetings are made public.
Now, the White House is relying on many of the same arguments used by Mr. Cheney to prevent the release of industry executives meeting with the president and his aides on health care.
Obama administration officials say they have adopted the Bush practice for now on visitor logs while they review the entire process, but have not given a time frame for the review’s conclusion.
An aide said Wednesday evening that the administration is planning to provide CREW with the dates the executives visited, but a CREW spokeswoman said the group has not heard anything from the White House.
CREW was similarly told by the administration last month that the visitor-log policy was under review when a FOIA request about visits by coal executives was denied for the same reasons. The watchdog filed a lawsuit in that case as well.
The Obama administration has echoed the Bush administration in its reasons for keeping the records secret. But a federal judge twice rejected the Bush White House’s presidential records argument, ruling that the visitor logs are indeed collected and maintained by the Secret Service and should be disclosed.
Republicans and private legal analysts say the Obama White House has found it hard to break with practices and policies of the Bush administration on a number of fronts, from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military to the use of military tribunals to try some detainees held in the war on terrorism.
In its letter requesting the records, CREW asked about visits from 18 health care industry executives.
Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.