Saturday, June 17, 2017

Let the Sunshine In

It's a concept so obvious, you'd think someone would make a law: people working in the public trust should do their work in the light of day and subject to the scrutiny of the public. There must be exceptions made to protect the privacy of employees, or to protect classified material, but in general, if your elected officials are acting on your behalf, you should be able to watch them do it.

Luckily, someone already wrote and passed such a law in Pennsylvania. As a result, state agencies, local governments, school boards, and such must conduct business out in the open. Your county commissioners can't get together at the local watering hole after their meeting and keep making policy. They can't hatch up a scheme by email and pass it at the next meeting. The law requires that "any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum of the members of an agency held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action" needs to happen in the open.

Un-luckily, the U.S. Senate is not so encumbered. Right now, the upper house is working on its own version of an Obamacare replacement, and trying very hard to keep it out of sight. They have a good reason: once people find out what's in the bill, they may wish the Republicans had left well enough alone, or started with Obamacare and made the necessary technical fixes that should have happened years ago.

Healthcare is hard. The Republicans are charged with crafting a bill that isn't quite as mean as what came out of the House, that simultaneously delivers lower deductibles, more patient choice, no one currently covered losing their insurance, getting rid of the individual mandate, covering pre-existing conditions, covering children until age 26 under their parents' insurance, not cutting Medicaid, and making the whole thing cost less for the Federal Government and individuals without screwing medical professionals. It's not possible. There will be winners and losers, and the losers will be pissed. In the words of Buckaroo Bonsai (during surgery, no less), "No, no, no, don't tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to."

Doing the people's business in the open is important. It has the potential to put significant curbs on:
  1. Self Dealing: Public officials who are in it for themselves have a much harder time slipping themselves little treats through policy-making when the public can keep in eye on what they're doing. We all remember the bridge to nowhere that didn't happen because we called them on it.
  2. Amateur Hour: In the example of healthcare, you really should present your ideas to medical professionals, and probably medical billing professionals specifically. If you are in charge of paying medical bills in your household, you know that matching insurance statements to bills is complicated and frustrating work. You really should have people that deal with this stuff all day long look at your plan and let you know where you've done something stupid. In the case of education policy, you should talk to teachers, and students, and administrators, and building custodians. Members of congress are all professionals at something--some were doctors, and lawyers, and business executives (and teachers, and farmers, and...)--but none were all professions. As Sesame Street taught us, asking questions is a good way to find things out.
  3. Evil: Even if the policy isn't a personal grab, as described in 1, above, it is possible for policy-making to leap right over foolish, past misguided, and land directly on evil. The ACHA, for example, took the hated individual mandate and changed it from a tax to help fund other parts of the law and converted it to a giveaway to insurance companies. 
  4. Nasty Surprises: Not putting the Obamacare replacement through the wringer of public scrutiny means that there will be stuff lurking in there that no one will know about until they get sick or injured. Obamacare itself went through endless hearings and still ended up with some crap in there that someone should have cleaned up before it went live. Having lots of people look this over before it becomes law could keep unintended (or intended, but evil) provisions from sneaking through.
  5. Legislative Hangover: Obamacare never enjoyed a whole lot of public love. The law is byzantine, numbering thousands of pages and cluttered with awkward compromises. The website roll-out was botched, and the implementation of most of the provisions were delayed enough that people could get good and grouchy about them before they saw any benefit (see also: here). Still, the Republican bill faces an even stronger backlash because it's enjoying such secrecy now. Also, given the total lack of Democratic buy-in, Trumpcare will face the same fate of needing to be perfect on the first draft with no way to tweak it down the line. Technical fixes will need 60 votes, since "reconciliation" will have been exhausted.
A podcast I enjoy consistently reminds us that "none of us is as smart as all of us." The U.S. is not a democracy, which means that I won't have a seat at the actual table to write the bill and I won't get to vote on it. However, my elected representatives will, and in PA I've chosen Pat Toomey and Bob Casey--which is proof that I have a multiple personality disorder. Senate terms are long, so many members (including Toomey) won't have to face voters for as many as five years. This means that putting pressure on senators can be very difficult--I know, I've tried. If Mitch McConnell is able to drag this thing across the finish line without real scrutiny and without half of PA's senators, it would show his legislative talents, but also show that he doesn't really understand how our government is meant to work.

Elected officials are supposed to convert the will of the people into public policy. Republicans are very interested in keeping their promise to repeal-and-replace, so much so that they don't really care about the actual result. Getting them to care is our job, through whatever light or heat we can introduce.

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