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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About Secret Legislation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's have a discussion, here in public, about secrecy. Secrecy has been a central accusation in the debate over health insurance legislation. Senate Republicans came under criticism in recent days for drafting a health insurance bill behind closed doors. Eight years ago, Republicans were the ones doing the criticizing. The original debate over the Affordable Care Act lasted more than a year, including many public hearings but still seemed opaque to then-Republican leader John Boehner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BOEHNER: Look at how this bill was written. Can you say it was done openly?

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: No.

BOEHNER: With transparency and accountability?

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: No.

BOEHNER: Without backroom deals and struck behind closed doors - hidden from the people?

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: No.

BOEHNER: Hell no, you can't.

INSKEEP: Well, there's a theme statement for you. We've been inviting you to ask Cokie - quite publicly, by the way - about legislative secrecy. Of course, we talk with Cokie Roberts about how Washington works each week. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. That was a very impassioned statement from John Boehner.

INSKEEP: Indeed, it was.

ROBERTS: Of course, it is true, by the time the bill hit the floor, very few people had read it.

INSKEEP: In the case of Obamacare because it was so many hundreds and hundreds of pages, yeah.

ROBERTS: Right.

INSKEEP: Well, here's our first question from the audience.

TONY GUTIERREZ: Tony Gutierrez, Lakewood, Calif. What, if any, legislation has been passed or presented similarly to the Affordable Health Care Act in the past that we may live with today?

INSKEEP: Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, nothing exactly like this that I can point to - but look, we've lived with secrecy in government for a very long time. Let's start with the Constitution, which was written in secret. And the Senate operated totally in secret at the beginning. But because they were appointed by state legislatures, those legislatures started arguing for open debate because they wanted to know what the senators were up to.

INSKEEP: You know, you can understand how it's maybe better to work out your plans in private and then make them public. The question is whether there's also a public phase, where people can argue about it. Is there a situation, like the Senate Republicans have attempted, where they drafted this major, major legislation and then tried to - at least talked about having a vote days after releasing it?

ROBERTS: Well, there's accusations that that was the case with the original Medicare legislation, where Wilbur Mills, the then-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, drafted it in secret. The difference was he normally did it in a bipartisan fashion. And that - of course, that hasn't been the case here.

INSKEEP: Well, here's another question about whether we can ever learn what happens in secret meetings.

LIZ FERNANDEZ: This is Liz Fernandez from Madison, Wis. How much can Congress do behind closed doors? And can we get the details later through the Freedom of Information Act, or is it sealed forever?

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting question because there is this law that is supposed to provide for government openness.

ROBERTS: But it does not apply to Congress. It is one of several laws that does not apply to Congress. But, you know, really, a lot of this is not about being sealed. What happened on this health bill would be much less formal than that. It would be conversations among members and staff. And once the bill becomes public, we pretty much know the deal. Will we ever know what kinds of trades and promises were made in that working group? Probably not, unless the members choose to tell us, which they often do. But of course, they tell us selectively.

INSKEEP: Karen Cull on Twitter asks about a different Democratic system. She writes, in the U.K., bills have to be read three times to pass. Don't you have the same rules here, and why not? - she asks.

ROBERTS: We do have the same rules here, as do pretty much every parliamentary system based on the British system. Actually, in the House of Representatives, the clerk will stand up and read a bill, section by section, as it is amended. Now, nobody listens to the clerk...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: ...Because it's droning on, and everybody has the bill in front of them usually by that time anyway. But look, by the time a bill is actually debated, you've pretty much had every interest group pore over it and argue about its points, one way or the other.

INSKEEP: I guess the question here is just whether there is time - time enough for the public at large to absorb what's going on.

ROBERTS: Well - and that's a very serious question. There's an old saying, legislate in haste; repent at leisure.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much. Good talking with you again.

ROBERTS: And you too, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org or by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.