This week, Republicans in the U.S. Senate have worked in darkness, crafting a bill designed to remake the nation’s health care industry.
There have been no hearings. No publicly available copies of the bill. No Democratic involvement. Not a single attempt to include the public in the legislative process.
A vote is set for next week.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House seems increasingly isolated from the press and public.
A Monday briefing with spokesman Sean Spicer was closed to video and audio recording. President Donald Trump grants few interviews and holds fewer regular news conferences, preferring 140-character tweets to interactions with the press and public.
These stories are related and reveal a deeply disturbing goal: conducting America’s public business in private.
Almost all politicians work outside the public sphere, of course. We harbor no illusions: Last-minute budget bills and leadership-negotiated “grand bargains” have become commonplace in Congress, where perpetual dysfunction has taken hold. Democrats have cut deals in the dark, too.
But the current push to exclude the press and the public from important events seems less tactical than philosophical. Lawmakers and the White House appear convinced the public should play no role in understanding or shaping policy.
The Senate strategy is particularly egregious.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has summarily dismissed multiplying complaints that a 13-man committee is drafting the party’s Obamacare repeal bill in secret.
“Nobody’s hiding the ball here,” he said last week. “There have been gazillions of hearings on this subject.”
The claim is ridiculous. There have been no hearings — none — on the specifics of the Republican health care bill. Hearings allow members of the public and interested observers to analyze bills in real time and offer amendments and adjustments if needed.
“We have no idea what’s being proposed,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri warned earlier this month. “There’s a group of guys in a back room somewhere that are making these decisions.”
White House secrecy is a more complicated matter. The Obama White House was notorious for clamping down on leaks, limiting the public to official statements and announcements. That lack of transparency was troublesome.
The Trump White House leaks like a Kansas City water pipe. But it continues to shut out mainstream reporting by holding meaningless press briefings — or canceling them altogether — and by blocking access to the president.
Neither approach is acceptable.
The public’s business must be done in public. That means the fullest possible disclosure of important information, sufficient time and opportunity to understand and analyze options and — yes — access for journalists who represent the public’s interest when questioning politicians and public servants.
Washington continues to fall woefully short of those goals. Our leaders must do better, or the public’s already diminishing faith in government will continue to erode.