In Praise of Backroom Deals

Health reform didn’t die from a lack of transparency.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online. See images from Obama’s first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

President Obama

“Part of what I had campaigned on was changing how Washington works, opening up transparency, and I think it is—I think the health care debate as it unfolded legitimately raised concerns not just among my opponents, but also amongst supporters that we just don’t know what’s going on. And it’s an ugly process and it looks like there are a bunch of backroom deals. Now I think it’s my responsibility and I’ll be speaking to this at the State of the Union, to own up to the fact that the process didn’t run the way I ideally would like it to and that we have to move forward in a way that recaptures that sense of opening things up more.”—President Barack Obama apologizing to one-time Nixon aide Diane Sawyer of ABC News for breaking his stupid campaign promise to put all health care negotiations on C-SPAN.

It doesn’t worry me that he said it. What worries me is that he may believe it.

American politics has never been more transparent than it is today. You can watch Congress on C-SPAN. You can slice and dice political campaign contributions on the Center for Responsive Politics’ Web site, or go direct to the source on the Federal Election Commission’s Web site. You can riffle through White House aides’ financial disclosure forms and find out who’s been visiting the White House. You can even see the newest U.S. senator in the nude.

Want to follow health care reform? The hearings and markups of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce are archived here, the Senate health committee’s hearings and markups are archived here, and the Senate finance committee’s hearings and markups are archived here (under “September 2009”). Every print document relating to the House and Senate bills that you could possibly want is available here.

In the ABC News interview, Sawyer said, “A lot of people think you must say at the end of the day, this is not who I was in 2008, these deals with Nebraska, with Florida.” That obviously irritated the president, who replied: “Let’s hold on a second, Diane. I mean, I think that this gets into a big mush. So let’s just clarify. I didn’t make a bunch of deals. There is a legislative process that is taking place in Congress, and I am happy to own up to the fact that I have not changed Congress and how it operates the way I would have liked.”

But the real problem isn’t that Obama failed to transform Congress into a magical place where legislation is so obviously virtuous that base horse-trading is unnecessary. The problem is that Obama (if we take him at his word) wouldn’t dirty his fingernails in the service of extending health insurance to somewhere between 31 million and 36 million of the 45 million people who don’t have it.

After defending the health care bill to Sawyer on its merits, Obama abased himself over the special deals secured by the last Senate holdouts: “[T]hat doesn’t excuse the stray cats and dogs that found their way into legislation.” Obama probably felt he had to say that because the “Cornhusker Kickback” and other sweetheart deals apparently enraged the public and may have helped Republican Scott Brown win his special election in Massachusetts. But Obama surely understands that this sort of legislative deal-making has always been routine in Washington; indeed, the city itself exists as a result of such deal-making. Must we also condemn the Compromise of 1790 because it bought off Southern legislators who previously blocked the federal assumption of state debt by locating the capital on the Potomac River?

The president appears to be suggesting that it wasn’t good enough for the public to find out almost immediately what it was that moved Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., from a nay vote to a yea. We ought to have been able to witness Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dangling this bauble before Nelson’s greedy eyes. Or, since that exchange would probably not have occurred on camera, I guess Obama is saying that C-SPAN’s sunlight would have disinfected Reid’s backroom deal-making to the point that the Cornhusker Kickback would never have been offered. Which would have been fine if you didn’t care whether the Democrats secured Nelson’s 60th vote to pass health reform.

I don’t mean to pooh-pooh transparency in government. Obviously it’s a good thing. The pathological degree to which former Vice President Dick Cheney operated in secrecy led to government abuses that we’ll probably spend years learning about. But in conducting the people’s business surely there are moments when politicians need to speak frankly and sometimes unattractively to one another. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center For Public Affairs features a treasure trove of secret presidential recordings that capture such moments.

Here, for example, is a 1940 tape of President Franklin Roosevelt discussing with civil rights leaders various options to integrate the military—a conversation that, had it been made public, would have damaged Roosevelt’s relationships with powerful Southern Democrats in Congress. (Seventy years later, we’re more likely to be appalled by Roosevelt’s cautiousness and by his observation, “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darned good at it.”) Here is a tape of President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis discussing whether to trade Russian missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey—a concession that, if made public, might have scuttled the peaceful resolution.  And here is a 1963 tape of President Lyndon Johnson, arguably the greatest backroom deal-maker to inhabit the Oval Office, bullying Rep. Albert Thomas, D-Texas, into keeping secret a Soviet wheat deal because “[i]t just publicizes that I’m pro-Russian right when Nixon’s running against me.” (Nixon himself would later advance a larger Soviet wheat deal of his own.) There may even exist a tape somewhere of President Richard Nixon saying something indiscreet within the privacy of the Oval Office that advanced the nation’s larger interests. (For the most part, Nixon’s private mutterings inside the Oval Office reveal him to be pathological and corrupt. Indeed, Nixon’s abuse of power goes a long way toward explaining why today’s public is too quick to judge any exercise of power at all as immoral.)

The same principle holds for Congress. In their book Showdown at Gucci Gulch, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Alan Murray point out that in writing the 1986 tax reform bill, which eliminated scores of loopholes, the Senate finance committee was unable to move forward until it kicked the lobbyists (and everyone else) out of the hearing room and started drafting the bill in secret.

By claiming that the health care bill was crafted too much in secret, Obama is ignoring this history. He is also failing to acknowledge that his own greatest failing as president is a kind of moral vanity. He is unwilling to set his virtue aside when his political goals require some private cajoling that might not play well on the evening news. Unfortunately, that’s part of the job. We elected him to be president, not saint.

Update, 9:40 p.m.: Fromtonight’s State of the Union speech:

[Health care reform] is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what’s in it for them.

This American wonders whether a little more horse-trading, especially by Obama himself, would have gotten the damned thing done by now.

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