The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The remarkable steps Republicans are taking to obscure what’s in their health-care bill

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is swamped by reporters outside of the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol, on June 6. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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This article has been updated.

News on Tuesday that on-camera interviews might be significantly curtailed within the Capitol is an on-the-nose manifestation of something that had otherwise not attracted a lot of attention: The Republican effort to replace Obamacare was being put together almost entirely outside of the public’s ability to see what was happening.

When White House press secretary Sean Spicer first addressed the Republican health-care bill that would eventually pass the House last month, he was effusive that his party’s caucus on Capitol Hill would do things differently.

“One of the things that’s important to understand about this process, that’s very different from when the Democrats did it,” Spicer said, referring to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

“Everybody can read it, and it’s going to go through what they call ‘regular order,’” he said. “We’re not jamming this down anybody’s throat. It’s going to go through a committee process. All parties involved, all representatives in the House will be able to have input into it. I think that’s the way to conduct this process, is to do it to allow people to watch the process happen in the committees, allow members of Congress to have their input in it, to make amendments, to see that we get the best bill that achieves the goal for the American people.”

He blamed the Democratic secrecy he was maligning for the final shape of the bill. “When it was done the last time, it was jammed down people’s throats. And look what happened,” he said,

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan made similar commitments. But that’s not at all how the Republican bill has unfolded.

Now that the Republican health-care bill has passed the House, there's a whole other set of obstacles it faces in the Senate. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: ERIC THAYER/The Washington Post)

After rushing the original version through committee in the House and getting an unfavorable assessment of its effects from the Congressional Budget Office, Republican leaders realized they didn’t have the votes for their bill, the American Health Care Act, to pass. (This was compounded by broad public outcry against the bill.) It was tabled for a while, until two amendments were crafted to make the bill palatable to enough Republicans to hit a majority in the House. Those amendments were added at the last minute, and a vote to pass the AHCA was held before the CBO could assess its effects.

It was generally assumed that the bill didn’t have much of a chance in the Senate. But that was before a small group of senators began working in private to develop a bill that might pass that body. And when we say “in private,” that’s underselling the point.

Only a small group of senators know what’s in the bill. An aide to one of the Republican senators working on it told Axios that no draft would be released because “we aren’t stupid” — meaning, apparently, that they knew better than to open up the bill to public criticism before the vote. The plan, apparently, is to send the bill to the CBO for a score before it is then released to the public.

Senators were reportedly going to be informed about options for the contents of the bill during a luncheon on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, after which the bill would be finalized and sent for scoring, with the goal of a vote before July 4.

This is the point — when senators learned more details about the proposed bill — at which the prohibition on televised interviews was issued.

The prohibition apparently came from the Senate Rules Committee, run by the Republican caucus. But not every Republican on that committee was aware that any rules for interviews had been changed, nor was the ranking Democrat.

(Update: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) released a statement denying that any rules had been changed.)

It could be a coincidence that this issue emerged now. The Post reported last week about crowding in the Capitol as reporters jostled for interviews. This change does have the effect, though, that senators will be able to avoid answering questions on camera about a bill that they recognize is not popular. (A poll released last week found that only 17 percent of the country approved of the House bill.)

How far might a Republican go to avoid answering questions about the health-care bill? One extreme example: Greg Gianforte of Montana assaulted a reporter rather than answer questions about the bill the day before being elected to the House from that state. By contrast, shutting off television cameras is downright passive.

A prohibition on cameras is a tangible demonstration of the lack of transparency that’s carrying the day on Capitol Hill. At some point, the Republican bill will become public, and American voters can judge it for themselves. Until that point, though we (and many of our elected leaders) are in the dark.

“We are coming up with something that I believe will be very good,” President Trump said of the bill on Monday. It’s not clear from that remark if he’s seen the actual legislation either.