Live C-SPAN Coverage vs. Pass Now, Explain Later


Among the broken promises President Obama promises to fix tonight is the one about televising health care negotiations on C-SPAN, which he made at least eight times. In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer on Monday, Obama laughed when she asked him, "Going forward, should all the [health care] conversations, all the meetings be on C-SPAN?" Then he said this:

You know, I think your question points to a legitimate mistake that I made during the course of the year, and that is that we had to make so many decisions quickly in a very difficult set of circumstances that after a while, we started worrying more about getting the policy right than getting the process right. But I had campaigned on process. Part of what I had campaigned on was changing how Washington works, opening up transparency, and …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 back room 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.

This is pretty candid acknowledgment that he didn't deliver on his promise, but I'm not sure what choice Obama had. Pretend that the negotiations really were televised, but everyone somehow missed them? Also, note how he tries to partially redeem himself by saying he forgot about transparency because he was so focused on "getting the policy right." Well, surely we can forgive him for not calling C-SPAN to arrange coverage when he was so hard at work "Standing Up to the Special Interests on Behalf of the American People." Except that we don't really know he was standing up to them if we don't know what happened behind the scenes, and the support of special interests such as insurance companies, hospital chains, and pharmaceutical manufacturers for his plan suggests he was, at best, crouching.

When Sawyer asked Obama about "these deals with Nebraska, with Florida," he sought to deflect responsibility a bit more:

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.

In other words, he ran on an unrealistic promise to "change the way business is done in Washington," a promise that would have required him to control the way members of Congress behave. Who actually expected him to do that? (As Tman notes in the comments, at the end of last month C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb asked to cover the negotiations aimed at resolving differences between the House and Senate health care bills; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, apparently feeling unbound by Obama's promise, turned Lamb down.)

The point is not that we all missed out on the scintillating C-SPAN coverage of unions demanding an exemption from the proposed excise tax on "Cadillac" health benefits, of Ben Nelson demanding Medicaid concessions for Nebraska, or of Bart Stupak demanding a ban on abortion funding. Those particular compromises were covered by the press anyway (partly because the people issuing the demands felt fully justified and bragged about their victories). The real questions have to do with the deals that aren't publicized, because they're buried in the arcane language of 2,000-page bills that even the people voting for them can't be bothered to read, or because they're added at the last minute by a conference committee. Although Obama promised to shine a light on that sort of thing, the true attitude of his administration is reflected in presidential adviser David Axelrod's recent comment that "people will never know what's in that bill until we pass it"—i.e., first we have to get this thing passed, the sooner the better; then we can show the American people why it's good for them.

More on the "pass now, explain later" approach here and here.