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President Obama, Where Are Those C-SPAN Cameras?

5 years ago
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If I had been at the White House daily press briefing on Thursday, I would have asked an obvious question:
Robert, The New York Times reports that the White House has cut a behind-the-scenes deal with drug industry lobbyists to prevent Congress from squeezing more than $80 billion in cost savings from Big Pharma. Where were the television cameras when White House aides were working out this agreement with the lobbyists?
Flash-back to the 2008 campaign trail: Then-candidate Barack Obama promised a new level of transparency in government -- particularly concerning the sausage-making that would produce any health care reform legislation. "We'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN," he said, "so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies."

It was a grand and noble promise that appeared to set up a potentially historic breakthrough in government openness and policy-making. Good-government advocates had their socks knocked off. Imagine if all those lobbyists scurrying through the nooks and crooks of Washington had to do so with television cameras pointed at them. Talk about reality TV! It would certainly change how business is done in the nation's capital.

It sounded too good to be true. And it was.

For Obama and his aides, this promise was, no doubt, one of those vows that seemed a fine idea at the time. But is no longer -- as Washington spinners like to say -- operable. No cameras recorded the chats between White House aides and drug lobbyists. Nor have they captured any similar sessions in which White House officials have discussed the health care bill with legislators, industry representatives, medical groups, or union officials.

Obama has been called out on this. At his last White House prime-time press conference, he was asked,

You promised that health care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN and that hasn't happened. . . . Are you fulfilling your promise of transparency in the White House?
He replied:

With respect to all the negotiations not being on C-SPAN, you will recall in this very room that our kick-off event was here on C-SPAN. And at a certain point, you know, you start getting into all kinds of different meetings. The Senate Finance Committee is having a meeting. The House is having a meeting. If they want those to be on C-SPAN, then I would welcome it. I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there.

This response was not straight talk. Indeed, that kick-off had aired on C-SPAN and various cable networks. But the ensuing White House negotiations have not been open to television cameras. (And, of course, there are secrets.) For instance, Obama's Thursday meeting with six members of the Senate Finance Committee -- topic: health care reform -- was not televised. The White House did insist this was not a "negotiating session." Yet that seemed a bit semantic. (Asked what was the point of the gathering, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he was sure the president and the senators discussed "how to bridge" the differences that remain -- which seemed rather close to what most people would consider a negotiation.) And remember, candidate Obama said he wanted the public to be able to determine if its elected representatives were making arguments on behalf of their constituents or the drug companies and insurance firms. Televising this meeting would have provided some clues.

The Obama administration certainly has brought more transparency to the federal government. But his White House has held on to several of the opaque practices of the past. It has not made public the names of White House visitors; it has so far backed the Bush-Cheney administration's decision to not release the interview Dick Cheney gave FBI agents who were investigating the leak that outed CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson. And it has not done anything as radical as Obama suggested -- that is, promised -- on the campaign trail when he called for C-SPAN to broadcast health care legislation negotiations.

To the contrary, Obama has engaged in behind-closed-doors talks with the lobbyists he once and often excoriated. In the face of a growing-in-intensity attack on health care reform from the right -- which includes the unfounded charge that the legislation under construction in Congress will lead to Medicare doctors telling grannies to opt for an early death -- perhaps this sort of traditional deal-cutting is the best way for Obama to achieve reform. (House Democrats, who were looking to press Big Pharma for more savings, though, are upset with the White House-drugmakers pact.) But this latest wrinkle shows yet again that Obama is following a conventional path to winning passage of health care reform. That doesn't make for easy-to-watch TV.

****

One of three American hikers presumably detained in Iran, Shane Bauer, is a contributor to Mother Jones magazine, my home base, and on Thursday the magazine posted a statement from one of his traveling companions, who was not with him at the time of his disappearance. Here it is. We obviously hope all turns out well for Bauer and his two friends, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, who have gone missing with him.

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