The summit of broken promises

Benjamin Domenech Research Fellow, Heartland Institute
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President Barack Obama’s latest health care proposal, unveiled in advance of today’s Republican-berating session at Blair House, marks a last-ditch attempt to seize control of the national narrative on reform. It also exemplifies the total dominance of campaign-style, partisan spin in this White House, where promises are cheap and easily ignored.

The president’s first broken promise this week is perhaps the most obvious: the promise that he would present a bill in advance of this summit, one that would include bipartisan ideas, for his opponents in Congress to review. He did not do this.

Despite the moniker of ObamaCare, Obama has still not proposed one piece of health care legislation. He completely ceded authority to the House and Senate in forming their respective bills—which is how he ended up in this mess to begin with. This did not change on Monday, when the White House posted its version of a health care “bill”—in reality, a lengthy opinion document outlining policy aims, based on the previously passed Senate bill and with only token nods toward bipartisan ideas.

No actual legislation was posted online, and none has been shared with the American people or Congress. When the Congressional Budget Office was asked by many members to provide an assessment of the cost of the president’s proposal, CBO responded, “CBO cannot provide a cost estimate for the proposal without additional detail.”

As always with policymaking, the devil is in those details. By not sharing them, Obama shows once again that this summit is about political posturing, not good policy.

The second broken promise is less obvious but more telling. In an interview last year, Obama personally promised, “no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.” All he had to do was include the legislative language passed by the House banning the use of taxpayer funds for abortions. Yet records indicate the president and his staff met personally with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards on four occasions and never bothered to talk once to Rep. Bart Stupak, sponsor of the funding ban amendment.

Obama could easily have kept his promise. He simply chose not to.

The final and most egregious broken promise was the president’s commitment to transparency, that the American people would see the negotiations and formation of the health care bill on C-SPAN. Obama made this promise not just once but on numerous occasions, and he repeated his commitment to transparency in his State of the Union address.

And that’s all he did about it.

What you’ll see on the cameras today is not a negotiation, and certainly not the creation of a bill. It is a political kabuki dance. None of the Republicans present has been included in the process of creation, and many of the Democrats have been shut out too. The American people will see nothing but a bunch of politicians registering their opinions. Everything has already been decided in back rooms.

When the president’s allies in the Senate and House chose to ignore C-SPAN’s repeated requests for admittance into their conference rooms during the creation of the legislation, the White House shrugged, saying it was up to them. But in fact it was entirely up to the president whether cameras would be allowed in the room. Why the insistence on secrecy after promising transparency? The president’s proposal contains several more union-friendly aspects than prior ones; was Andy Stern of SEIU in the room when they were added? They aren’t saying.

The actual creation of this legislation was an entirely closed-door activity, where special interests came and went but the American people had no access. The White House seems surprised at the expectation they will keep the promise of openness: There they go again, these normal Americans acting like they own the place.

When forced to come up with something—anything—to restart this stalled debate, Obama chose not to start keeping his word. Instead he is attempting to reframe the issue the only way this White House knows how, by going back on television to berate his opponents for being his opponents. He is very good at that.

In a permanent campaign, everything is focused on partisan victories. And when that’s all that matters, the nation loses.

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org), a former political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News (http://healthpolicy-news.org).