Republicans' attacks on the Senate Democrats' health bill kicked off with criticism about process as much as substance.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at an October press conference in Washington.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at an October press conference in Washington. John Moore/Getty Images
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., spent weeks forging the bill "behind closed doors," charged the Republican leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky and his deputy, Jon Kyl, of Arizona, in statements right after the bill became public.
What about it? Squawking aside, secretive legislative engineering is business as usual for the Senate, say open-government advocates and former congressional aides, including one Republican. While the legislative process is often opaque (smoke-filled rooms, anyone?) nothing Reid did while combining bills from two Senate committees is beyond the pale, these Senate-watchers told us .
"When Republicans ran the show, they didn't believe in transparency," Alec Vachon, a Republican aide on the Senate Finance Committee in the '90s said. "Back then, dude, nobody talked about transparency."
So, why bring it up now? President Obama was asking for it, said Bill Allison, of the Sunlight Foundation. During a Democratic primary debate last year, Obama said his approach to health reform would be "not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are."
Those words have been derisively quoted on conservative Web sites, and by Republican lawmakers in earlier statements, after Obama held a series of, well, closed-door meetings with health industry groups such as insurers and drugmakers.
While Obama's pledges may hold little sway over how Reid behaves in office, Allison argues it may be a good time to revisit transparency in the legislative branch. "We have no access to what's going on with Congress," he said, noting that freedom of information laws don't apply to the legislative branch, and the congressional record gets murky when it comes to committee debates.
More transparency in crafting legislation would help the public understand which lawmakers are promoting controversial provisions as legislators weigh their options, he said, singling out a clause in an earlier Medicare bill that benefited pharmaceutical companies by banning the government form negotiating drug prices. "That's a good thing to know," he said