Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"83% Say Congress Should Post Bills Online For All To Read Before Voting"--What Would Andy Rooney Say? And How 'Bout That $19 Billion for Health IT?

If Andy Rooney were covering the current healthcare debate, he might say, "Doncha hate it when people take your campaign promises seriously and expect you to take them seriously, too? Also, doncha hate it even more when people wonder why you wanted $19 billion for healthcare computerization, and yet you refuse to put your own legislation online?"

Yes, those are good questions, going right to the heart of what it is that the Democrats are tying to do with their health care bill. Are they trying to bring openness and transparency to the process, or are they trying to keep it all as secret as possible? And if they want to keep it under wraps, we might ask, "Why?"

Those questions come to mind as I read of a new poll from Rasmussen Reports, headlined, "83% Say Congress Should Post Bills Online For All To Read Before Voting On Them." Yup, an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans think that Congress should post legislation (including, of course, the healthcare bill) online well before voting on it. Indeed, a thumping 64 percent of Americans think that legislation should be online for two weeks before it gets voted on.

That full-disclosure public sentiment is certainly in keeping with the "information wants to be free" ethos of the Information Age, which started to wash over politics, in the form of C-SPAN, debuting way back in 1979. And the Internet has opened up new vistas for disclosure and transparency; Newt Gingrich is a Transparency Hero for driving the process of putting most House proceedings immediately online, via the Thomas system, which the Senate quickly picked up on. But that was 14 years ago, and little has happened since to advance the notion of "sunshine" on Capitol Hill.

Yet it seemed like just yesterday that Barack Obama pledged that all his presidential health care deliberations would be put on C-SPAN. In fact, it was barely more than a year ago--he made that pledge, most recently, on August 21, 2008. He told an audience in Chester, VA:

"I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies -- they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies. And so, that approach, I think is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process."

That seems clear enough. But of course, it didn't happen.

And it was just last week that Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), offered an amendment to the Finance Committee bill calling for, among other things, a three-day period in which the legislation could be posted online. But Bunning's amendment was voted down. Over on the House side, Republicans have a similar idea, but of course, they aren't likely to get very far with the Democratic majority.

Admittedly, both parties have been guilty of trying to keep the "sausage-making" process as veiled as possible.

But with every year, the argument for secrecy attenuates, as a) better information technology makes it easier to fully disclose, and b) that same better info tech makes it virtually inevitably that the secrets will be disclosed anyway.

And secretiveness is doubly ironic for the current Democrats, since not only did their leader, Obama, promise to let everything hang out on TV, but the Obamacare forces have placed great stock on the idea that information technology will help improve health care.

Earlier this year, the "stimulus package," a.k.a. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allocated $19 billion for health information technology. There are plenty of good arguments on behalf of health IT (some made at a conference held on Tuesday morning at the US Chamber of Commerce, more on that soon), but one could be forgiven for thinking that the first thing that should be digitalized and "transparent-ized" would be the authorizing legislation of Obamacare. But not so fast.

No doubt the Democrats think that they are playing it smart by doing it the old-fashioned way--behind closed doors. But it's entirely possible that they are outsmarting themselves, because they are in the process of producing a product that the American don't seem to like. This morning I went to a healthcare discussion hosted by Harvard's Shorenstein Center; more soon on that as well. But suffice it to say, for now, that leading academic experts, including Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Robert Blendon were more than a little bearish about the current legislation.

Indeed, the specter that haunts this latest dance of legislation is the catastrophic health insurance bill, enacted in 1988 and then ignominiously un-enacted in 1989.

Hmm. Big Democratic majorities back then, high hopes, a bill hatched the traditional way, and then... boom! it blew up when the public got wise to it. And that was before the Net, before Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

No wonder Politico front-paged a story mulling over who would succeed Harry Reid as Democratic Leader if is defeated for re-election next year.


  1. It would not be practical for myself as a freelance writer to ask others to research my blogs all over political sites and besides self aggrandizement and hubris is not in my make up. I questioned months ago why President Obama, who successfully utilized the Electronic Age as fodder for his success would allow any exclusion of information from the public on his preferred topic, health care. I even at one point suggested that Diane Sawyer moderate a program featuring the bill itself could act as a moderator and make things clear for the audience. This bill is essentially our destiny and should be diced up by the American public over the Internet or network television. Obstructionists to this sensible action should be considered by our citizens and voting public as politicians attempting to obscure instead of clarify this critical subject matter.

  2. Sounds good, Jim.

    Transparency does have a way of disinfecting things.

  3. My article, "Would You Ask Turkeys to Mandate Thanksgiving: The Dismal Politics of Legislative Transparency," published in the Spring 2009 issue of the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, may shed some historical light on some of the issues Jim raises in his commentary. The proposal to post bills publicly 72 hours before passage has been around since the 1960s. See

    --J.H. Snider