By Ernest Istook
Imagine watching the biggest game of the year—the Super Bowl—only to have the broadcast cut off as the fourth quarter begins.
The same outrage should apply to President Obama’s broken promise to have C-SPAN televise the entirety of health care negotiations. Just as we reach the crucial moment–the final resolution between the House, the Senate and the White House–public access goes black.
(For those who remember, it’s like 1968 when NBC provoked outrage when it broke away from a critical game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders to air a showing of “Heidi”).
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Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs tried to laugh off today’s controversy, telling reporters the President’s broken promise doesn’t matter because we’ve already had a “thorough, robust, two-year debate on health care” as the bill moved through committee and each house of Congress.
But what about the decisive part of the game—the fourth quarter—when America’s most powerful politicians meet with each other and with special interests to resolve major differences? That’s the most important part—the part that Americans most need and deserve to see.
If we cannot trust officials to keep a simple promise about openness, how can we possibly trust what they’ll do behind closed doors? Whether Congress uses a formal conference committee, a “ping-pong” process or any other, Obama’s broad promise encompasses all methods of crafting the final version of the bill.
President Obama could refuse to participate in backroom dealings, forcing Congress to accept C-SPAN’s offer to televise the dealings. And these must not be token meetings just for show, with the real deals being cut elsewhere.
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We should not be distracted by arguing whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi is right or wrong in claiming “there has never been a more open process on any legislation.” Whether you agree or disagree, it’s no excuse for cutting off openness at its most important time.
Does anyone believe that big interests won’t get their voices heard in the backrooms—as Obama pledged to prevent? CNN reports the AARP wants to protect its hundreds of millions in annual insurance premiums in exchange for supporting the bill. Stories abound about special deals for Pharma and the American Medical Association, which they’ll want to protect in private meetings. And the labor unions have a major interest and want a major voice.
What did Obama promise to all of us? ‘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, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process,’ Obama said at a debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2008.
He repeated this on-camera at least eight times in campaigning for the White House.
It’s no excuse to say Americans have already witnessed the pre-game show, the warmups, and the first three quarters. Now it’s crunch time. This is no time to pull the plug on the people’s right to know; it’s time to learn who can be trusted to keep their word.