During the 2008 presidential primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, then-Sen. Obama promised to hold open, televised negotiations on health care reform, a direct swipe at his opponent’s approach to health care reform when she was First Lady and in charge of the White House’s health care reform efforts. As it turns out, that was all just politics. As President, Obama has not held televised negotiations on his health care reform efforts. Now, the Secret Service is refusing to release a list of health care lobbyists and executives visiting the White House for these not-so-televised negotiations.
Invoking an argument used by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has turned down a request from a watchdog group for a list of health industry executives who have visited the White House to discuss the massive healthcare overhaul.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the Secret Service asking about visits from 18 executives representing health insurers, drug makers, doctors and other players in the debate. The group wants the material in order to gauge the influence of those executives in crafting a new healthcare policy.
While the administration required lobbyists to meet a pretty high transparency burden for the stimulus funds, health care lobbying is allowed to fester without the transparency Obama repeatedly promised during the campaign. Now, negotiations do not necessarily need to be televised — in fact that’s probably a bad idea — but disclosing who is meeting with White House officials is crucial to gauging the power of groups and organizations trying to influence the final outcome.
The same is true with all major issues that the White House has put forward: cap and trade, financial regulation and health care. The New York Times reported that industry officials and lobbyists are seeking to work with the administration, in an effort to have their voices heard, rather than throw bombs from the outside. All of these organizations are seeking to influence White House decisions and ultimately to lobby Congress to set the final outcome, yet there is no mechanism for disclosure of their interactions with government officials.
If President Obama wants to meet his campaign promises of fighting lobbyists and increasing the transparency of the influence sector, he should consider applying the same disclosure rules (not the meeting restrictions) that cover stimulus lobbying to all lobbyists and executives. Or, at the very least, release a list of health care lobbyists and executives visiting the White House, per CREW’s request.