Transparency Sought in Health Care Talks

Daily News Article   —   Posted on January 20, 2010

(by Jennifer Harper, WashingtonTimes.com) – C-SPAN is now not the only major news organization to make a formal request that talks on health care reform legislation occur in the open, as promised by President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) on Tuesday demanded “more openness and transparency” over the massive, $900 billion legislation, known in its current form as “America’s Affordable Health Care Act of 2009 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

The group – which represents high-profile leaders of multimedia news organizations, journalism school deans and First Amendment experts – criticized what it called “back-room negotiations” over health care that should take place in full, open committee proceedings.

“We have been monitoring these bills in the House and the Senate and evaluating our members’ needs in terms of gathering news and information they can use to inform the public,” said ASNE President Martin Kaiser.

“It is now clear that there is an inexcusable level of secrecy surrounding this landmark legislation, especially as the current proceedings are likely to produce the final version presented to all members of Congress. To so profoundly affect the American public through closed-door proceedings is an affront to one of the core values of democracy,” Mr. Kaiser said.

Public trust is at stake, the group says.

“Openness is not a partisan matter; in fact, it’s quite the opposite, often serving as one of the uniquely unifying factors for those with differing views,” Mr. Kaiser added.

Both the House and Senate have passed health care reform bills. But they differ in many ways, and the chambers’ leaders have to iron out those differences in conference committee, a process usually done behind closed doors.

Mr. Obama the candidate had promised that under his administration, such discussions would take place in the open, to prevent Washington back-door horse-trading. The White House has since backed away from that.

The White House did not respond to an e-mail request for comment Tuesday.

Concern for the public also motivated C-SPAN chairman and CEO Brian Lamb to play hardball.

In a Dec. 30 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Mr. Lamb also issued a formal request that Congress shed light on health care negotiations, and open the talks up to media coverage.

“President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system,” he wrote.

“Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between the Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American,” Mr. Lamb wrote.

The president clearly vowed such transparency on the campaign trail during the 2008 presidential election, a fact made painfully clear in a video montage that showed Mr. Obama vowing that all discussions about health care reform would take place before the nation.

Americans are in favor of an open legislative process. For example, a survey conducted by the Palm Beach Post found that 91 percent of the respondents backed televising the negotiations.

The Houston Chronicle was among other news organizations requesting the same thing.

“Count our voice among the growing chorus in favor of opening the final debate and negotiations over health care reform to C-SPAN’s cameras. This is not simply making good on a campaign promise by President Barack Obama; it is the right thing to do,” the newspaper said in a Jan. 15 editorial.

ASNE appears willing to be satisfied even with minimum exposure.

“While we prefer the maximum openness of televised debate that allows direct and unfettered access for everyone, we hope that, at a minimum, the rest of Congress’ work is done in on-the-record, open committee meetings that allow for press coverage and public attendance,” the group said.

Copyright 2010 News World Communications, Inc.  Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times.  For educational purposes only.  This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit the website at washingtontimes.com.

Questions

1. What is the ASNE?

2. What has the ASNE called on Congress to do?

3. What reason does the group give for its request?

4. What promise did President Obama make regarding health care negotiations when he was running for office?

5. What are the results of a Palm Beach Post survey on opening the health care negotiations to the public?

6. ASNE president Martin Kaiser said: “It is now clear that there is an inexcusable level of secrecy surrounding this landmark legislation, especially as the current proceedings are likely to produce the final version presented to all members of Congress. To so profoundly affect the American public through closed-door proceedings is an affront to one of the core values of democracy.”
A Houston Chronicle editorial stated: “Count our voice among the growing chorus in favor of opening the final debate and negotiations over health care reform to C-SPAN’s cameras. This is not simply making good on a campaign promise by President Barack Obama; it is the right thing to do.”
a) Do you agree with these statements? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent the same question.


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Background

ON HOW A BILL BECOMES A LAW:
Once the House and the Senate both pass a bill, it then moves on to a conference committee, which is made up of members from each House. The committee works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The revised bill is sent back to both houses for their final approval. Once approved, the bill is printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office…. The clerk from the introducing house certifies the final version.  The enrolled bill is now signed by the Speaker of the House and then the vice president. Finally, it is sent for presidential consideration. The president has ten days to sign or veto the enrolled bill. If the president vetoes the bill, it can still become a law if two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House then vote in favor of the bill. (from bensguide.gpo.gov)

ON CONFERENCE COMMITTEES:
A conference committee is a committee of the Congress appointed by the House of Representatives and Senate to resolve disagreements on a particular bill. The conference committee is usually composed of the senior Members of the standing committees of each House that originally considered the legislation. (from wikipedia.org)

THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF NEWS EDITORS (ASNE): (from the website asne.org)

  • ASNE supports the First Amendment at home and free speech around the world. It opposes censorship and encourages government openness, including the courts and military.
  • ASNE represents news leaders’ points of view within the news industry, the American political process and society.
  • ASNE is at the forefront of efforts to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and state Shield Laws and the call to enact a federal Shield Law.
  • ASNE created Sunshine Week, an ongoing effort to empower citizens to hold government responsible and open.

C-SPAN:
C-SPAN is a private, non-profit company, created in 1979 by the cable television industry as a public service. Our mission is to provide public access to the political process. C-SPAN receives no government funding; operations are funded by fees paid by cable and satellite affiliates who carry C-SPAN programming. (from cspan.org)

Resources

Read the press release from the ASNE asking Congress to open the health care reform negotiations to the public at asne.org/article_view/smid/370/articleid/580/reftab/38/t/asne-calls-on-congress-and-administration-to-open-health-care-negotiations-to-public.aspx.

Read C-SPAN’s letter to Congress at cspan.org/pdf/C-SPAN%20Health%20Care%20Letter.pdf.

Watch a video of candidate Obama promising to permit C-SPAN to televise the health care reform negotiations: