ASNE calls on Congress and administration to open health care negotiations to public

Jan. 19, 2010--The American Society of News Editors joins those demanding more openness and transparency as Congress debates health care reform. We agree with other journalism groups and open government advocates who have decried the amount of debate and negotiation over the America's Affordable Health Care Act of 2009 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that has occurred away from public view. Congressional leaders should emerge from their back-room negotiations and continue only in full and open Conference Committee proceedings.

"We have been monitoring these bills in the House and the Senate and evaluating our members' needs in terms of gathering news and information they can use to inform the public," said ASNE President Martin Kaiser. "It is now clear that there is an inexcusable level of secrecy surrounding this landmark legislation, especially as the current proceedings are likely to produce the final version presented to all members of Congress. To so profoundly affect the American public through closed-door proceedings is an affront to one of the core values of Democracy."

ASNE reminds congressional leadership that public trust in the final result -- no matter what that result is -- will be maximized by openness. Those supporting the result will be spurred to further ensure its implementation. Those who disagree will take solace in the knowledge that their views were heard and considered. Openness is not a partisan matter; in fact, it's quite the opposite, often serving as one of the uniquely unifying factors for those with differing views.

Closing these proceedings, or engaging in their functional equivalent by negotiating behind closed doors until such time that a Conference Committee is ready to vote on nearly-finalized legislation, is likely to alienate both supporters and opponents. While we prefer the maximum openness of televised debate that allows direct and unfettered access for everyone, we hope that, at a minimum, the rest of Congress' work is done in on-the-record, open committee meetings that allow for press coverage and public attendance.

We also hope that President Obama will convey this message when communicating with Congress on health care reform. The president has repeatedly pledged his support for open government. His administration has instituted a policy of "discretionary disclosure" with regard to Freedom of Information Act requests, stating that records requested under that act should be disclosed where an exemption justifies their disclosure, as long as no foreseeable harm would result from that disclosure.

An equivalent standard could be applied here. We are aware that congressional rules and procedures allow bills to be legislated in this fashion. We do not agree with these mechanisms or their employ, especially where the stakes are as high as they are now. We call on Congress, and the president, to recognize the overriding interest in the openness of the health care debate and resist any urge to conduct further proceedings in secret.

The American Society of News Editors is a membership organization for leaders of multimedia news organizations and deans and endowed chairs at accredited journalism schools. ASNE focuses on open government and the First Amendment, journalism education, leadership and diversity.