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Editorial: Senate decision to craft health bill in secret is terrible public policy

The headline was both disturbing and, in an odd way, reassuring: “Secrecy surrounding Senate health bill alarms lawmakers.”

It’s good to know that something in the public interest is still of concern to members of Congress, and this certainly merits it. The United States Senate has been meeting secretly to craft legislation meant to overturn and, in some way, replace the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. It’s a desperate and anti-democratic way to pursue public policy.

That would be true if the Senate were debating the dimensions of potato chips. It is especially disingenuous when the matter is the health care offered to millions of Americans.

Whatever defects weaken Obamacare, that law was fully debated in public. Its production was messy and sometimes shocking, in the way that big legislation often is. But it wasn’t a secret.

The Senate, by contrast, wants nothing to do with transparency. No doubt recognizing that most of the country opposes what Congress is trying to do with the Affordable Care Act, its solution is to hide in the bushes rather than to come out into the sunlight. It is clearly afraid of what it is doing.

The effort is controversial from just about every vantage point. The ACA is plainly flawed. It needs to be repaired, as this page has noted repeatedly. But Republicans who voted dozens of times to repeal the law while Barack Obama was president never developed a consensus on a plan of their own, as the recent disaster in the House of Representatives has documented and the Senate is now busy confirming.

Twice, the House planned to vote on a bill whose impact members did not know. The second time, they did vote, approving a measure before it could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency charged with calculating the costs of legislation. House members were bulldozed into voting for a bill that Americans did not want.

Once the CBO had scored the bill, it was obvious why House leadership also ducked transparency: While the bill was somewhat improved from a previous version that never came to a vote, it would nonetheless take insurance away from millions of Americans and, as a practical matter, deprive those with pre-existing conditions the protections provided by the ACA.

Americans across the country protested, venting their anger at members of Congress. Now the Senate, instead of absorbing a valuable lesson about transparency and the wishes of constituents, is opting for a different kind of secrecy. Perhaps members don’t remember how severely Republicans criticized then-first lady Hillary Clinton for pursuing health care reform behind closed doors during her husband’s first term.

This is a difficult issue, but it’s one that Republicans brought on themselves. They took an unwise – and, yes, unhealthy – stand against Obamacare without giving serious consideration to the fundamental issue: It is in the national interest for Americans to have access to affordable, high-quality health care. To that, there can be no plausible objection. The debate should be over means to the desirable end.

But we need debate, not secret talks. Americans are already deeply skeptical of what Congress is doing regarding Obamacare. If the Senate wants the public to buy in to what it is doing, it needs to pursue this matter in public.

That seems unlikely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly pushing to introduce legislation on Friday with a vote expected within a week. Few senators have even seen the bill at this point, and a week is not enough time for the public to digest the legislation and comment on it.

It’s bad policy and likely doomed to ultimate failure. Such is the price of secrecy. That’s a shame. The Senate could have taken the lead in producing a bill that sought to fix the problems of the Affordable Care Act while giving it a Republican spin. Instead, it is spinning the public.

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