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The Shame of the Senate

Jun 13, 2017

“It is the policy of this state that the deliberative process of governmental bodies shall be open to the public during meetings.” So begins Section 36-25A-1 of the Alabama code.

South Carolina’s General Assembly has determined “that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.”

In Section 551.003 of the Texas Code, lawmakers have wisely exercised their “powers to adopt rules to prohibit secret meetings of the legislature, committees of the legislature, and other bodies associated with the legislature, except as specifically permitted in the constitution.”

Likewise, lawmakers in Kansas have made it absolutely clear how vital to democracy such transparency is: “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate,” Statute 75-4317 begins, “it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.” Moreover, says the law, “It is declared hereby to be against the public policy of this state for any such meeting to be adjourned to another time or place in order to subvert the policy of open public meetings.”

Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has a similar “open meeting” law—or “Sunshine law,” as they’re often called. So does the federal government. The statutes vary—excluding one or another agency or executive process from public scrutiny—but in each case, red state and blue, the rationale for the law is as straightforward and sacred as that for the republic itself: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish…insure…provide for…secure…ordain and establish.” It’s us, baby. We are the establishers of the laws that govern us.

This framework is the fundamental structure that keeps our great and rare democracy thriving. And that’s what makes the efforts of a slim, cynical majority of U.S. senators to subvert this structure—to plot in secret legislation that could affect virtually every citizen in the nation—so bone-chillingly frightening.

Republican senators are drafting their version of Trumpcare without hearings or public testimony of any kind. There are to be no “committee markups,” no full-throated debate on the floor of the Senate, no time for the 48 senators in the minority party to weigh in or ask questions or express grievances, no chance for independent watchdogs or associations of physicians, nurses, phlebotomists, hospitals, insurers, and especially the insured to study the bill…until, that is, it’s time for a vote. All of the traditional steps in the Senate’s legislative process will either be done away with entirely or be done in secret.

In an extraordinary statement captured on video (< a must-watch), Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, pleaded to her colleagues: “We have no idea what’s being proposed. There’s a group of guys in a backroom somewhere that are making these decisions. There were no hearings in the House. I mean, listen, this is hard to take, because I know we made mistakes on the Affordable Health Care Act, Mr. Secretary. And one of the criticisms we got over and over again, that the vote was partisan. Well, you couldn’t have a more partisan exercise than what you’re engaged in right now. We’re not even going to have a hearing on a bill that impacts one-sixth of our economy.”

The Senator from the Show-Me State’s plaintive call was simple: “Show me.” That’s what democracy is all about.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, clearly has no intention of doing that. The law in his home state says the “formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

He must not have read it.

This essay appears in today's edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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