Meet the Beltway bloodsuckers. They convene in the dead of night, when most ordinary mortals have left work and let their guard down or are lying asleep in bed. Pale-faced and insatiable, the nocturnal thieves do their nefarious business in backrooms and secret chambers. Their primary victims? Taxpayers, the free market, and deliberative democracy.
Democratic leaders have been promising the most ethical, transparent, open, and engaged administration for years. Instead, they have delivered a bleak and creepy legislative environment that could double as a Twilight movie set.
Skulking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rammed the government healthcare takeover package through under the cover of darkness before Thanksgiving and Christmas. House Democratic leaders forbade debate on all but one amendment not authored by themselves. The Senate Finance Committee killed a GOP amendment that would have required Demcare to be available online for 72 hours before the committee voted. Reid and his Volterra-style henchmen cut last-minute cash-for-cloture deals behind closed doors.
And now House and Senate Democratic leaders are reportedly preparing to cut dissenters out of the reconciliation process by bypassing the formal conference committee.
In Hill parlance, this legislative shortcut is called "ping-ponging." A better game analogy: dodgeball. With mounting opposition from both conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats, President Obama's water-carriers must use every trick in the book to speed the final merging and passage of the bill before the end of the month.
The hypocrisy reeks stronger than rotting garlic. In 2006, House Democrats asserted that "House-Senate conferences are a critical part of the deliberative process because they produce the final legislative product that will become the law of the land." That same year, Reid railed on the Senate floor against informal deal-making that circumvented the conference committee process -- and he attacked the use of manager's amendments to avoid public scrutiny:
"Of course, nobody can see the manager's amendment. It is composed of over 40 amendments. How could anyone vote for a piece of legislation such as that -- a manager's amendment with 42 separate amendments? Now, these amendments were not put in a conference committee. People complain about that. But at least in a conference committee, you have people working together, sticking things in....Here, you have one person making a decision as to what is going to be in the manager's amendment. There is no way to know what is in it."But four years later, it was Reid who snuck his 383-page manager's amendment -- stuffed with payoffs, special breaks, and concessions on healthcare -- into the Senate hopper on the Saturday before Christmas break. Four years later, it is Reid stifling the open, collaborative conference committee process he so fiercely championed.
Where's Barack Obama? As a candidate, he promised repeatedly to broadcast legislative negotiations on C-SPAN "so that the American people can see what the choices are" and "so that the public will be part of the conversation and will see the choices that are being made." But the most transparent presidential administration ever is shrugging its shoulders. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pooh-poohed C-SPAN's request to allow electronic media coverage of the Demcare negotiations.
Instead, Gibbs thinks Americans should be grateful for what they got last month: "The Senate did a lot of their voting at 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning on C-SPAN....And I think if you watched that debate -- I don't know -- I wasn't up at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning for a lot of those votes, but I think if the American public had watched...you'd have seen quite a bit of public hearing and public airing." And if you missed the middle-of-the-night broadcasts, tough noogies.
Team Obama's contempt for meaningful transparency has been on display from Day One. A year ago this month, Obama broke his vaunted open government pledge with the very first bill he signed into law. On Jan. 29, 2009, the White House boasted that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act had been posted online for review. Except: Obama had already signed it -- in violation of his "sunlight before signing" pledge to post legislation for public comment on the White House website five days before he sealed any deal.
From the stimulus to the healthcare takeover to holiday bailouts for bankrupt financial behemoths Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it's been all backrooms and blackouts ever since. The Prince of Darkness at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is perfectly happy with his Vampire Congress. Wraiths of a sunshine-evading feather flock together.