There was an air of unreality in the United States Senate when I entered the Capitol building on Wednesday to record some PJTV interviews. I sat down with five U.S. senators to discuss the imminent future of the long-embattled health care bill.
We are approaching the eleventh hour for Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) slowly dying health care legislation, which he insists will be passed before Christmas. This is the same bill that was to be enacted last summer, then by August, then after Labor Day, and then before Thanksgiving. Now it may be a Christmas present for the country.
The senators gave good information and offered sharp criticism of the bill. What I had not expected was to discover that, well … there is no bill.
What about the 2,074-page document we’ve been reading about that purports to be health care legislation? Oh, they replied, that bill was pulled by Reid more than a week ago along with the public option, which is now dead.
So Mr. Reid has no bill for senators or the public to read. No one knows what will be in the new bill. And the new, concealed bill still has to be “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office before the Senate can debate it and before an increasingly skeptical public can make their opinion known.
But Senator Reid was vowing to keep the U.S. Senate hostage while he and his allies worked behind closed doors to craft a bill he will eventually unveil to the public. He says he will give the senators 72 hours to digest it before a vote. And this bill probably will exceed 2,074 pages.
So there is no plan — neither a public option nor expanded Medicare. Then what is there?
It can be anything Mr. Reid and his pals want to dream up in their private, well-appointed Capitol Hill sitting rooms.
“The irony is,” said Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), “the president campaigned on total transparency. … What kind of bill is this?”
Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) told me that the request for lawmakers to vote on such a massive bill sight unseen was unprecedented. “I haven’t seen anything like this on a bill of this magnitude,” he mused.
“Unbelievable,” Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said. It is the “most closed process” he has seen in his lifetime.
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) was pretty fired up. “I’ve been in elected office for 32 years. … Here we are with a 2,074-page bill and no one knows what’s in this bill.”
Senator Mike Johanns comes from Nebraska, the same state as wavering Democratic Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE). “About a week from now,” Johanns laments, “we’ll cast a final vote redesigning everyone’s health care and today we don’t know what’s in a final bill.”
Johanns observed that even Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), the second-ranking Democrat, confessed he was kind of clueless about what would be in the final bill. Durbin admitted on the Senate floor on December 10: “Most of us know the fundamentals, but we don’t know the important details.”
Two-thirds of a year into our intense national debate, and it’s pretty amazing that there are no details for the public to read, analyze, or debate on health care reform.
So without a real bill, senators have been reduced to shadowboxing over the complex 2,000-page bill that doesn’t exist. The process is such a non-process that it has produced a surreal environment.
In “normal” times, pulling a bill would spell its doom. But we do not live in normal times. The president and his party are determined to pass “something,” regardless of whether it is good or bad.
It’s presidential face-saving time — a time to salvage a reputation that is heading south. That’s what it has come to. Desperate to achieve some kind of success, the president is forcing the Senate to pass a bill it has not seen with a vote now scheduled as early as this weekend or as late as Christmas Eve. Turn away from your mistletoe and turn on C-SPAN for breaking news.
But isn’t this the era of the Obama presidency, where there was supposed to be openness and transparency in government?
On January 21, 2009, the president issued an eloquent statement — almost poetic — on how information can really be a truly valuable national asset:
Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset.
So here we are, eleven months into his young administration, and we are seeing a pivotal bill born of the worst possible process: no openness, tons of secrecy, and back room wheeling and dealing.
And are the “good government” types screaming? How about those ethics groups? Are they foaming at the mouth?
The reality is that hardball Democratic Party practices do not seem to connect with Democratic Party ideals. Their idea of governing is to cut deals behind closed doors, to anoint winners and pummel losers. Has anyone told them it is the most corrosive and cynical way to govern in a democracy?
The Washington Post laconically reported last Monday:
The full contents of the legislation probably will not be known until Tuesday, at the earliest, when the Congressional Budget Office is expected to provide an official cost analysis.
That was last Tuesday. There hasn’t been a CBO ruling. Hence there is still no bill to examine.
After eight years of screaming about President Bush’s secrecy, it is interesting that the mainstream media is largely mum about the legislative abuse now underway.
Even in small town city councils, most bills have to be read three times and public meetings convened before a bill becomes law. This principle has died on the national scale.
For PJTV, I tried to pin down where the secret Democratic Senate meetings were being held on health care. They turned out to be a movable feast. Some were announced; many never were. No one knows who sat in what meetings and on what topics.
We don’t know how AARP fared in influencing details of the bill. Or how SEIU shaped the bill. Or what Big Pharma was promised for its endorsement of an early Obama plan.
Citizens cannot see who authored which provisions, who won big federal favors, or who will get new privileges in the Brave New World of Big Brother delivering health care.
No one knows … yet.
A penchant for secrecy is a style of governing that is well known in many authoritarian countries. We don’t have to stretch our imagination to see these governing styles on display in Iran, China, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.
Thankfully America isn’t Venezuela. And Obama has not become Hugo Chavez.
I suspect the face of authoritarianism here may arrive with more benign faces. It may emerge with subtle velvet hands like those used by regulators out of the European Union’s faceless bureaucracy. There, regulations are hatched in private among elites, then paternalistically dispensed to their citizens. The EU model is driven by an impenetrable bureaucracy that has little accountability, protects special groups, and informs the public in a genteel way about what it is they can and cannot do.
This may be more in tune with the Obama administration and so-called “progressives.” As they stand in awe over Europe for its many “superior” ways, they may be looking at a neo-European governing style as a role model.
Rather than assume their penchant for secrecy with the health care bill is an aberration, this could become their governing norm.