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Thu., Jan. 7, 2010, midnight

Editorial: Hiding from cameras only harms debate on health care

The design, debate and formation of health care reform haven’t been as open as candidate Barack Obama envisioned. The New York Times notes that in 2007 Obama criticized the Clintons for constructing their reform “in isolation from the American people.”

By contrast, he said, “We will work on this process publicly. It will be on C-SPAN. It will be streaming over the Net.”

But as Senate and House leaders hash out the differences in their health care bills, they’ve opted to head for isolation.

C-SPAN, the cable channel that covers Congress, wrote to congressional leaders on Dec. 30, asking to bring its cameras and microphones to the negotiations.

Thus far, it hasn’t gotten a direct response, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released a statement Tuesday saying Senate Democrats are committed to transparency in the process. That will be meaningless if C-SPAN and other media are barred.

Democrats are fearful that the traditional process for melding the two bills, which includes floor debates, would be susceptible to Republican stall tactics.

Tough. That’s a possibility for all legislation. The answer isn’t to go into hiding. It would be a shame if people who have been watching this debate from the outset were suddenly shut out at its conclusion. Candidate Obama said TV coverage would expose whether a congressional member was “carrying water for the drug companies.” But citizens have already been blocked from the private haggling that allowed both bills to pass. Plus, the White House cut deals in private with hospitals and pharmaceutical and insurance companies to head off opposition.

So while it’s too late for total transparency, it is not too late to follow the final negotiations to their historic end. As candidate Obama noted, “You can shame Congress into doing the right thing if people know what’s going on.”

Private negotiations will give rise to public cynicism about indefensible deals and backroom payoffs. Continuing coverage would allow C-SPAN to add to its coverage, which has been archived for future generations to witness how this transformative legislation was passed.

Democrats complained in 2003 when they were locked out of negotiations on the Medicare prescription drug benefit. The Senate majority leader has professed a commitment to transparency. The president has already articulated why that is valuable.

There is no excuse for fading out before the story is over.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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