WASHINGTON — Debates over press freedom and secret deliberations of healthcare legislation roiled the US Senate Tuesday, indicating signs of strain about public scrutiny within a bastion of American democracy.
Republicans who control the Senate Rules Committee abruptly banned TV reporters from conducting videotaped interviews and filming in Capitol corridors without advanced permission — then, after an outcry, appeared to quickly back down.
The extraordinary media restrictions, implemented by the Republican-controlled Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Sergeant at Arms Office, came against the backdrop of unprecedented secrecy surrounding the Republican health care bill, which has been negotiated without any public hearings or public testimony.
At a press conference Tuesday, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell defended the closed door process.
“Nobody’s hiding the ball here,” McConnell said. “You’re free to ask anybody anything.”
The investigations and intense controversies of President Trump’s administration have at times created big press scrums, making it difficult for Senators to walk through the halls. But a chorus of lawmakers, mostly Democrats but some Republicans as well, quickly denounced the idea of imposing blanket restrictions on press access in Congress — the biggest symbol of open, democratic government in the world.
The chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, issued a “clarification” after the ban was announced saying that no new restrictions had been imposed on TV cameras, and that Senate press officials had been asked to enforce existing rules. Later, he told television reporters the entire ordeal was a “misunderstanding.”
“It wasn’t anything I did,” Shelby told reporters in the late afternoon.
The firestorm about press access came at an inopportune time for the GOP, since the caucus is already under fire for refusing to submit their proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act to public scrutiny. The House version of the bill would cause 23 million Americans to lose insurance, according to the official estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.
The GOP leadership is currently crafting a bill without any public hearings or input, and without releasing any drafts of the proposal. Still, they plan to push for a floor vote before July 4.
Hannah Katch, a Medicaid expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the hush-hush nature of the GOP health care bill is causing anxiety in health care markets.
“I can’t think of a reason to be so secretive about this process, unless they believe that the smallest bit of sunlight would stop the bill in its tracks,” Katch said. “If a member of Congress is proud of their bill and they want their constituents input and they believe it will improve the lives of their constituents, I see no reason to be so secretive.”
Even some members of the Republican party said they would prefer more sunlight.
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican from Tennessee, said Tuesday that once legislation is crafted - that before the Senate votes a CBO score will be public and everyone “will know what’s in it.”
“I’ve said from Day One and I’ll say it again, the process is better if you do it in public and that way people get buy in along the way and understand what’s going on,” Corker said. “Obviously that’s not the route that is being taken.”
South Dakota Senator John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership team, was among a group of Republican senators who had a lunchtime meeting with Trump about the bill. After the meeting, Thune defended the Republican health care process as an open one — or, at least, open to Republicans.
“Our members have all been involved,” Thune said. “We know what the issues are. We’ve been litigating this for the last eight years. ... There have been multitudes of hearings and discussions about these issues.”
The controversy over the closed-door process statements speak to the high stakes of the current political climate and the furious debate over the covert health care negotiations. Back in 2009, Senate committees spent more than 20 days publicly debating President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, considering more than 125 amendments and nearly 80 roll call votes. The full Senate spent 25 straight days debating the health care bill before passing it on Christmas Eve.
In the drive to repeal that law, an action that could leave as many as 23 million Americans without health insurance, Republicans have not released the text of their health care bill to the public, less than two weeks before leaders plan to hold a final vote. Some reports say the GOP leadership is considering not releasing the bill’s to the public at all, at least before it is scored by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
This has stunned health care professionals like Katch, transparency watchdogs, and Democratic lawmakers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen anything close to this,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Tuesday, in a petition she sent out to her personal e-mail list, which was also blasted out by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“No hearings, no debate, no bill to look at,” Warren said. “This scheme to repeal health care takes every norm of the Senate — every concept of how we work together — and just burns them to the ground.”
Andy Slavitt, the former Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama, said he fears that health care industry experts are being excluded from the process, which could lead to worse policy.
“It’s not just a matter of transparency, it’s a matter of including good thinking in the bill,” Slavitt said.
“There’s a serious process you have to go through for legislation that’s going to effect a sixth of the economy and tens of millions of people,” Slavitt said. “You don’t go through a process, which, all told, may total 20 hours. With no hearings. No markups. Only 20 hours of debate.”
Democrats were not buying it. Throughout the day Tuesday, they attempted to tie Shelby’s proposed press restrictions with the health care debate. For some, it signaled how far Republicans are willing to go to keep their health care plan in the dark.
“I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual,” said Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee.
“This is no time for limiting press access in U.S. Senate. Russia hearings, Sessions testifying & (secret?) health care bill being drafted!” Klobuchar tweeted.
Senator Chris Murphy, the Democrat from Connecticut, was more blunt.
The new press restrictions were “about the Republicans trying to keep health care negotiations hidden, protect their Senators from tough questions Outrageous.” Murphy said on Twitter.
According to reporters who were at the Capitol Tuesday, including a Globe reporter, the new edict was handed down around 11 a.m., when the director of the Senate Radio TV Gallery Director Mike Mastrian told TV crews that they needed to clear the hallway because they were engaging in an “unauthorized stakeout.”
Mastrian said current leadership of the Senate Rules Committee, meaning Shelby, had decided to invoke existing rules that require advance permission from both an individual senator and the Senate Rules panel before conducting an interview in the hallway.
As several members of the media pointed out to the director, the decision broke with decades of precedent. Capitol Hill journalists often wait outside hearing rooms to question individual lawmakers, which provides the public swift and accurate information about the goings on in Congress.
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California tweeted “Senators don’t need to hide,” as did moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, of West Virginia. Republican Senator Ben Sasse said “this is a bad idea.”