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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan July 10, 2009

Obama said he'd televise health reform negotiations on C-SPAN

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said several times that he intended to negotiate health care reform publicly. In fact, he said, he'd televise the negotiations on C-SPAN, with all the parties sitting at a big table. That way, Americans would be more engaged in the process and insist on real change.

"That's what I will do in bringing all parties together, not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process," Obama said at a debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2008.

The special interests and lobbyists, he said, "will resist anything that we try to do. ... And the antidote to that is making sure that the American people understand what is at stake."

We missed this promise when we first made our database, but thanks to thorough reporting on it from the McClatchy News Service , we're adding it now. ( Read their story .)

The McClatchy report showed that, so far, substantial negotiations on health reform have been held behind closed doors. These include two agreements with the drug industry and hospitals to reduce costs over the next 10 years. In Congress, some of the committee bill writing sessions have been open, but negotiations are also taking place behind closed doors. That's routine in Congress. Much of the difficult negotiations take place in private sessions, before bills come to committee or the House or Senate floor.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the McClatchy reporters that Obama "has demonstrated more transparency than any president," but that "I don't think the president intimated that every decision putting together a health care bill would be on public TV."

Maybe not every decision, but he made it clear that he wanted negotiations, especially with those representing the for-profit health care industry, to take place in the open. We were able to find four additional instances where he made the same promise during public appearances in 2007 and 2008. And in one case, he said he'd do it in his first 100 days.

"People say, 'Well, you have this great health care plan, but how are you going to pass it? You know, it failed in '93,'" Obama said on Aug. 21, 2008, at a town hall in Chester, Va. "And what I've said is, 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."

Part of the issue here is that Obama has announced broad outlines for a health care bill — primarily lower costs and expanded access — but he has left the details of legislation to Congress. That gives Congress a lot of the power to control the debate, as then-candidate Hillary Clinton warned Obama during the Los Angeles debate. "Certainly, it is important that the president come up with the plan, but we'll have to persuade Congress to put all of those deliberations on C-SPAN. Now, I think we might be able to do that, but that's a little heavier lift than what the president is going to propose," she said at the time.

So no, there haven't been any round-table negotiations on C-SPAN. And there are plenty of questions still to be answered. To our mind, one of the most important questions will be the details behind what's known as the public option, which Obama has said he supports. It could be like Medicare for everyone, or it could be just another nonprofit health insurance plan, or anywhere in between. The details here matter a great deal, but we don't know which type of public option is likely to emerge from Congress or what specific stipulations Obama might have for the public option.

Obama promised — repeatedly — an end to closed-door negotiations and complete openness for the health care talks. But he hasn't delivered. Instead of open talks of C-SPAN, we've gotten more of the same — talks behind closed doors at the White House and Congress. We might revisit this promise if there's a dramatic change, but we see nothing to indicate anything has changed. We rate this Promise Broken.

Our Sources

McClatchy Newspapers, Obama campaign vow of public debate on health care fading , July 9, 2009

New York Times, Health deals could harbor hidden costs , July 7, 2009, Democratic presidential debate , Jan. 31, 2008

CQ Transcriptions, Town hall with Barack Obama in Lancaster, Va., Aug. 21, 2008, accessed via Nexis

Federal News Service, Town hall with Barack Obama in Albuquerque, N.M., Aug. 18, 2008, accessed via Nexis

CQ Transcriptions, Town hall with Barack Obama in Lancaster, Pa., March 31, 2008, accessed via Nexis

CQ Transcriptions, Town hall with Barack Obama and Google employees in Mountain View, Calif., Nov. 14, 2007, accessed via Nexis

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