The Speaker’s Lobby: When The Doors Close

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

06 January 2010

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) frequently admits he doesn’t like recalling the last presidential campaign. But the former Republican presidential nominee made it a point the past month or so to remind reporters of one of President Obama’s campaign promises when  he vied for the White House. McCain says the president claimed that if elected, he would hold the health care reform negotiations in the open and televise them live on C-SPAN.

When President Obama ventured to Capitol Hill in early December for a rare, closed-door caucus on a Sunday afternoon with Democratic senators, McCain chided his former rival in front of the TV cameras, just steps outside the conclave.

“Where’s C-SPAN in that meeting now?” McCain queried.

The Arizona Republican knows what he’s talking about. On at least five occasions in late 2007 through August of 2008, candidate Obama promised transparent, free-wheeling negotiations on health care. And he repeatedly stated that the talks would air on C-SPAN.

“It’ll be on C-SPAN,” the president said in Mountain View, CA in November, 2007. “It will be streaming over the net.”

“I’m going to do it all on C-SPAN so that the American people will know what’s going on,” Mr. Obama said in March, 2008 in Lancaster, PA.

“I’m going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN,” President Obama said in August, 2008 in Chester, VA.

Now C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb is in the fray. Lamb penned a letter to Congressional leaders a few days ago, imploring them to allow C-SPAN to televise “all important negotiations” on health care.

“We respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American,” Lamb wrote.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) then joined the bandwagon and fired off a letter of his own to Lamb.

“Hard-working families won’t stand for having the future of their health care decided behind closed doors,” Boehner said in his brief to Lamb. “These secret deliberations are a breeding ground for more of the kickbacks, shady deals and special-interest provisions that have become business as usual in Washington.”

Since transparency is the order of the day, I should tell you that a gig at C-SPAN was my first job in Washington. And anyone interested in the health care bill or any aspect of American government would love to see the process televised on C-SPAN, or any other outlet.

Except, that’s not how American government works.

Almost any lawmaker, from either side of the aisle, will tell you that if you want to accomplish anything in Washington, you have to conduct business behind closed doors. Float a proposal. Trade horses. Argue the merits of your point. Commit to help the next time. Be frank with a fellow lawmaker who backpedaled on a handshake agreement. And if you still don’t like the outcome, saltily describe anatomical regions that fail to receive adequate sunlight.

As Muhammad Ali once waxed poetically, “Only the nose knows where the nose goes when the doors close.”

Now when those doors close, that’s not to say that anything underhanded or illegal is going on. It’s just part of the legislative process. And it’s been that way since the birth of the republic.

The health care reform bill has plenty of detractors. Many opponents view the “deals” that were hashed out in secret as a major debacle involving this legislation. Of particular interest is the Medicare reimbursement arrangement negotiated by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) to secure his pivotal 60th vote for the measure. In exchange for Nelson’s support, the federal government will now pick up the Nebraska’s Medicaid tab. And there were dozens of other bargains cut along the way.

That’s why Republicans are eager to portray these off-stage talks as sinister councils, veiled in malevolent darkness.

When the House wrestled with its version of the health care bill last fall, Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) repeatedly said that the House Democratic leadership was crafting the measure “behind closed doors in a smoke-filled room.”

Pence’s rhetorical flourish about a “smoke-filled room” was to conjure up the sleazy images that many Americans have about how Congress operates. Pence paints an image of politics from another era: Boss Tweed acolytes doling out political favors while puffing on stogies amid a low, thick haze.

I called Pence out on the smoke-filled room line after he trotted it out several times over the course of a week. Two of the key players crafting the health care legislation were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA). In one of her first acts as Speaker three years ago, Pelosi banned smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby, the historic corridor behind the House chamber where lawmakers congregate with reporters and aides during votes. Waxman is the most-ardent smoking foe in Congress, known for a legendary tête-à-tête with tobacco company executives in the mid-1990s. I kidded Pence that of all people, the last place Pelosi and Waxman would meet to draft anything would be a “smoke-filled room.” And even if they did, did Pence think the duo was convening in John Boehner’s office suite? If Pelosi and Waxman did pow-wow in the minority leader’s office, that could be one of the only acts of bipartisanship involved in this legislation. Boehner is known as one of the biggest smokers in Congress. And it’s not uncommon to catch a waft of cigarette smoke emanating from his Capitol office as you stroll by in the hallway.

Naturally, Boehner and Pence often assailed Democrats for hammering out a health care bill behind closed doors….after they emerged from closed-door meetings of the House Republican brain trust. And the last time I checked, reporters and general members of the public weren’t permitted in those sessions either.

Since the Democrats control Capitol Hill, Republicans don’t have much of a chance to write legislation these days. Either undercover or out in the open. But when Republicans ran Congress, they certainly held their share of private meetings and wrote gobs of legislation in secret.

But the arguments of Messrs. McCain, Lamb Boehner, Pence and are well taken. There’s a lot that goes on that lawmakers don’t want other members, staff or certainly the press to find out about. And a little sunlight wouldn’t hurt.

So Republicans are again blasting Democrats for holding another round of behind-the-scenes talks to blend the House and Senate versions of the health care bill into a final, unified product. Senior House Democrats are meeting in Washington this week with many members of the House Democratic Caucus scheduled to dial in to a Thursday teleconference.

Republicans were quick to accuse Democrats of bypassing the usual “conference committee” process and engaging instead in “Ping-Pong” to resolve House and Senate differences.

A conference committee is a formal, open process where House and Senate members meet in a cramped room to vote up or down the final language of the bill. Ping-Pong is where the House and Senate volley their respective bills back and forth, each body voting on a set of changes and sending it to the other, until they finally settle on a single version.

Ping-Pong (which incidentally is a trademark held by Parker Brothers) is an easier procedural route for Democrats on health care. Especially in the Senate. If Democrats hold a traditional conference committee, which in turn produces a final “conference report,” (e.g.- the last version of the legislation), Senate Republicans can again filibuster. The GOP can require 60 votes just to summon the health care conference report to the floor. And 60 votes are needed again to cease debate on the conference report. Meantime in the House, Democrats can block the GOP from offering a “motion to recommit,” which is the final chance the minority party usually has to scuttle a bill before final passage.

Of course, few realize it was the Republicans who blocked the start of the open, conference committee process. On Christmas Eve, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) informed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that he would object on the floor if Democrats tried to appoint their conferees to the conference committee. The appointment of conferees is often routine and is the first step in the conference committee process. But not in the health care poker match. The Senate’s cardinal rule is “unanimous consent.” And the threat of an objection by the minority leader to a request by the majority leader can bring the Senate to a screeching halt.

So Democrats may be reduced to table tennis. Although Pelosi conceded Tuesday that she hasn’t yet “excluded” the idea of assembling a conference committee.

Frankly, most conference committees are shams. They’re little more than rubber-stamp sessions after both the House and Senate leadership have molded the legislation the way they want. And into what both leadership teams know can pass on the floors of both chambers. Congressional Democrats will hold dozens of closed-door meetings even if they do conduct an open conference committee. And none of those sessions will be televised on C-SPAN.

But here’s the pivotal question: if they did televise the meetings, would anybody watch?

Sure, people moan about a “closed” process. But these discussions are tenuous. Hours of talks. Hours of negotiations that drift deep into the night. Would it compete with American Idol? Desperate Housewives? The NFL playoffs? The Spice channel?

Certainly people say they want to watch. That’s because they know that learning more about a major policy issue is like eating parliamentary brussels sprouts. It’s supposed to be good for you. Do these same folks hit the gym five days a week, devour whole grain cereals and lots of green, leafy vegetables? Or do they lay around at night on the couch, dozing off to SportsCenter while they guzzle root beer by the two liter and pop Ho-Ho’s?

Face it. American leaders make decisions behind closed doors all the time. In private, backroom meetings. Over a cup of coffee in a diner off the New Jersey Turnpike. During a cell phone call on speaker phone mode while someone shaves in the morning. It doesn’t just happen this way in Congress. It happens with the local town council, zoning department and library board. And none of it is televised on C-SPAN.

But along the way, there is open discussion, dissent and comment.

If Congressional Democrats cobble together a final health care bill, open debate will unfold on the floor of the House and Senate. A vigilant press will scour the legislation and mine obscure details no one spotted before. And if people don’t like what the Congressional sausage grinder produces on health care, they can express their opinion in November.

Televising the health care negotiations on C-SPAN was a noble goal. But President Obama isn’t the first politician to break a campaign promise. And publicizing the health care talks isn’t a Constitutional right.

But voting is. And you can bet that the results of the midterm elections will be covered.

On C-SPAN. And everywhere else.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.