Did C-SPAN Cameras Improve The Health Bill Or Change The Debate?

Last month, Republican leaders seized on C-SPAN’s request for full access into the Democrats’ health care talks to argue that capturing policy negotiations on camera would inform the public and improve the underlying legislation. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) accused Obama of breaking his campaign pledge and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) announced that “all House Republicans strongly endorse your proposal and stand ready to work with you to make it a reality.” “Hard-working families won’t stand for having the future of their health care decided behind closed doors,” Boehner wrote in a response letter.

The actual summit, however, turned out to be something less than substantive. Republicans used the existing reform legislation as props, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized Obama for “allowing Democrats to run on” (saying Republicans had spoken for 24 minutes while Democrats had had 52), and McCain seemed to resort to his old campaign rhetoric. Both sides used familiar talking points and memorized phrases and at least five different Republicans asked Obama to “scrap the bill ” and “start over” with a “clean sheet of paper.”

In the days leading up to the forum (and in the hours following it), lawmakers expressed doubts about the usefulness of a 6-hour televised debate session and most concluded that the chances of a a new bipartisan agreement were remote. Suddenly, the very same Republicans who argued that televised meetings would cleanse the process or produce a more bipartisan bill quickly recognized that C-SPAN gave lawmakers just another opportunity to score political points without advancing the debate:

– “This week’s summit clearly has all the makings of a Democratic infomercial for continuing on a partisan course that relies on more backroom deals and parliamentary tricks to circumvent the will of the American people and jam through a massive government takeover of health care.” [Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), 2/22/2010]

– “This whole dog and pony show that we’re about to witness today is something that should have taken place a year ago when the administration first came in last February and laid out its agenda for health care.” [Michael Steele, 2/25/2010]

– “Unfortunately, my fears about this summit were realized: rather than a substantive discussion about health care reform, the President’s summit was just for show.” [Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), 2/26/2010]

– “I was discouraged by the outcome…I do not believe there will be any Republican support for this 2,700 page bill.” [Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 2/25/2010]

The ultimate verdict on the bipartisan health care summit is still out, but yesterday’s forum didn’t alter the debate or meet the expectations of C-SPAN advocates. It’s why I argued back in January that “the public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote, but when it comes to legislating, transparency is overrated. Changing Washington’s political culture requires far deeper systematic reforms than C-SPAN television. The hard politics isn’t pretty enough for TV.”