WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama once promised that negotiations over his health care overhaul would be carried out openly, in front of TV cameras and microphones. Tell that to the White House now.
Republican congressional investigators got the brush-off this past week after pressing for details of meetings between White House officials and interest groups, including drug companies and hospitals that provided critical backing for Obama's health insurance expansion.
Complying with the records request from the House Energy and Commerce Committee "would constitute a vast and expensive undertaking" and could "implicate longstanding executive branch confidentiality interests," White House lawyer Robert Bauer wrote the committee. Translation: Nice try.
It's one more roadblock for Republicans who tapped into widespread anxiety about the scope and costs of the new health care law to regain control of the House in last fall's elections.
So far, they've been unable to repeal the landmark legislation they dismiss as "Obamacare." GOP efforts to deny administration agencies the money to carry out the law are running into unintended consequences, not to mention the sheer difficulty of tracking those dollars. Now it looks like oversight isn't going to be easy either.
"We are both concerned and disappointed by your response," the committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., wrote back to Bauer. "The American public deserves the information we have requested. The secret meetings conducted by (White House officials) are a perfect example of why transparency in government is so important."
Upton urged the White House to carefully reconsider, but it's uncertain he'll ever get what he wants. Even if the standoff dramatically escalates to a congressional subpoena, history shows that presidents usually succeed in keeping records away from snooping eyes.
President George W. Bush's administration beat back efforts to reveal the dealings between Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and industry. President Bill Clinton's administration successfully resisted demands for records of its failed push to remake the health care system, which was overseen by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The request for records from Obama's health care reform office is broad. The committee asked for a list of every meeting, briefing or telephone call regarding changes to the health care system, as well as notes or summaries of those encounters. It wants a list of every employee of the now-disbanded health reform office, including their salaries
. Committee investigators are also seeking any written communications, whether by letter or e-mail, with outside groups.
White House visitor records released at the request of The Associated Press in late 2009 show that Obama's top aides met frequently with lobbyists and health care industry leaders during the marathon congressional debate over health care overhaul.
The list included George Halvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Health Plans; Scott Serota, president and CEO of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association; Kenneth Kies, a Washington lobbyist representing Blue Cross/Blue Shield, among other clients; Billy Tauzin, then head of PhRMA, the drug industry lobby; Richard Umbdenstock, chief of the American Hospital Association; and numerous others.
Nearly every health industry group has complaints about aspects of the final legislation. But they're also working to carry out its provisions, even as challenges to the law's constitutionality advance in federal court. Some sectors got significant concessions from the administration.
The pharmaceutical industry and hospitals agreed early on to tens of billions in savings to help finance new coverage for the uninsured. When an amendment to allow importation of low-cost prescription drugs came up in the Senate, the administration worked successfully to defeat it, although Obama had supported the idea as a presidential candidate. Hospitals won a reprieve of several years from cuts proposed by a new Medicare cost control board.
The White House sent the Energy and Commerce Committee some 100 pages of records that have already been made public, including visitor logs and press releases. That may be all they get for a long time.