When Republican senators heard about Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slamming a reporter who was so rude as to ask him a question about health care, they apparently said to themselves, "We need to make sure that never happens to us." So the answer they came up with was to minimize the terrifying prospect that they'd have to answer questions from the press when they didn't want to.
So it was that on Tuesday, Capitol Hill reporters were stunned to learn that according to an edict coming down from Senate Rules Committee chairman Richard Shelby, they would be forbidden from interviewing senators in the halls of the Senate unless they had prior permission — meaning none of the hundreds of impromptu interviews that take place nearly every day outside hearing rooms or on the way from one meeting to another would be allowed any longer. Marianna Sotomayor of NBC tweeted, "NBC's coverage teams and other TV outlets were waiting to get reactions from senators at several hearings when we were told to evacuate halls." After chaos and anger descended over the press corps, Shelby released a statement saying that "The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage," apparently because some never-enforced existing rule allowed him to shield senators from intemperate questions. A couple of hours later, after a wave of blistering media coverage and a torrent of tweets, the committee reversed itself and said that journalists could resume asking senators questions.
What is this about? Why, health care, of course.
To understand why Republican senators — for whom getting on TV and in the papers is at the core of their job — would want to hide from the press, you have to know what they're up to with regard to passing a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act. Right now, they are in the midst of an effort to pass a bill that will transform health care in America, a sector that now accounts for one-sixth of the nation's economy, employs 19 million Americans, and touches all of our lives. And they want to do it without anyone knowing what they're up to.
You might recall that for years, Republicans claimed that the Affordable Care Act had been "rammed through" Congress without anyone understanding what it was about, which is kind of like saying that the tortoise "flew by" the hare before that poor innocent bunny could get started on the race. In fact, the ACA was debated vigorously for an entire year. There were 79 public hearings in the House and even more in the Senate as the bill moved through multiple committees, hundreds of amendments (many proposed by Republicans) were considered, and near the end the Senate spent 25 straight days debating it on the floor.
Now let's compare that to how Senate Republicans plan to push through their bill to undo the ACA, which will be just as sweeping in its effects, if not more so. The GOP bill is not going through the committee process. There will be no hearings. There will be no markups, in which committees consider amendments. The bill is being written in secret by a group of 13 Republicans; even other Republican senators aren't allowed to see it. The draft won't be released publicly, because as a Senate aide told a reporter, "We aren't stupid." After all, who knows what would happen if the public got to see it? And then the plan is to push it through to a quick vote before the July 4 recess a couple of weeks from now.
Mitch McConnell isn't going about it this way because he knows the bill is so terrific that people will just love it once they get to know it. Given that even the Fox News poll showed support for the House bill at an abysmal 21 percent — other polls were even worse — McConnell and his compatriots have decided that a stealth strategy is the only one that gives their bill even a chance to pass. That's because what the bill will do — slashing Medicaid, giving a huge tax cut to the wealthy, threatening health security for every American — is so awful and cruel that they know that if it is exposed to the light, the pressure on Republicans to vote no will become overwhelming.
That's not to say that there aren't times when backroom dealing is perfectly fine. You can undertake some difficult negotiations in private, allowing for give-and-take before the final legislation is drafted. But at the end of that process, you have to show everyone what you've produced, and give them enough time to evaluate it.
That prospect is plainly horrifying to McConnell and the Republicans. So they've decided to keep things hidden as long as possible, and hope that maybe a little girl will fall down a well or Kim Kardashian will release some nude photos, and the nation's attention will be drawn elsewhere so they can quickly release the bill and vote on it before anyone knows what's happening.
Who knows, it might work. But every new effort at secrecy only confirms that what they're producing is utterly monstrous in the effects it will have on Americans' lives — particularly the poor, elderly, and disabled who are the beneficiaries of Medicaid, but for everyone else, too. If it wasn't, they wouldn't be working so hard to keep it hidden.