So much for the President's pledge of C-Span transparency.
Rehabilitating Tom DeLay's reputation always seemed hopeless, or so we thought—but then again, President Obama ran on hope. Against the odds Democrats are making the former GOP Majority Leader look better by comparison as they bypass the ordinary institutions of deliberative democracy in the final sprint to pass ObamaCare.
Instead of appointing a formal conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate health bills, a handful of Democratic leaders will now negotiate in secret by themselves. Later this month, presumably white smoke will rise from the Capitol Dome, and then Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the college of Democratic cardinals will unveil their miracle. The new bill will then be rushed through both chambers with little public scrutiny or even the chance for the Members to understand what they're passing.
Evading conference has become standard operating procedure in this Congress, though you might think they'd allow for the more open and thoughtful process on what Mr. Obama has called "the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s and the most important reform of our health-care system since Medicare passed in the 1960s."
This black-ops mission ought to be a particular embarrassment for Mr. Obama, given that he campaigned on transparent government. At a January 2008 debate he said that a health-care overhaul would not be negotiated "behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-Span so the American people can see what the choices are."
The C-Span pledge became a signature of his political pitch. During a riff at the San Francisco Chronicle about "accountability," he added that "I would not underestimate the degree to which shame is a healthy emotion and that you can shame Congress into doing the right thing if people know what's going on."
Apparently this Congress knows no shame. In a recent letter to Congressional leaders, C-Span president Brian Lamb committed his network to airing "all important negotiations," which if allowed would give "the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American." No word yet from the White House.
At a press conference in December, even Mrs. Pelosi said that "we would like to see a full conference." One reason she mentioned was that "there is a great deal of work involved in reviewing a bill and seeing what all the ramifications are of it," though her real motive at the time was that a conference seemed like a chance to drag the bill closer to the House version.
With public support collapsing, however, Democrats now think the right bill is any bill—and soon. Democrats know that a conference forces the majority party to cast votes on awkward motions and would give the Republicans who have been shut out for months a chance to participate. This sunlight, and the resulting public attention, might scare off wavering Democrats and defeat the bill. Ethics rules the Democrats passed in 2007 also make it harder to "airdrop" into conference reports the extra bribes they will no doubt add to grease the way for final passage.
Democrats howled at the strong-arm tactics Mr. DeLay used to pass Medicare drug coverage in 2003, and so did we. But they've managed to create an even more destructive bill, and their tactics are that much worse. We can't even begin to imagine the uproar if the Republicans had tried to privatize Social Security with such contempt for the democratic process and public opinion.