The paradox of secrecy in American politics is how much attention it gets. Over the last couple of weeks, the penchant of the White House and the Republican Senate for blocking the release of information has become a central issue in Washington. It’s a case of making lemonade from lemons: If you can’t cover the story, cover why you can’t cover it.
Perhaps most immediately important is the Senate GOP’s refusal to reveal anything about the bill the health-care bill currently under consideration. Meanwhile, the administration has been quietly clamping down on various forms of access, from public schedules to visitor logs to the daily briefings at the White House. The executive branch has taken to refusing requests for information from congressional Democrats too.
The result is a weird reversal of the normal course of business: Gossipy nuggets leak out of the White House on a daily basis—Trump is yelling at TVs! Trump is angry at Jared! Sean Spicer/Reince Priebus/Steve Bannon is on the chopping block!—and the president tweets as fact things his lawyers claim are not true, yet next to nothing is known about a huge bill that could change health coverage for millions of Americans.
This kind of secrecy is bad for policymaking and bad for democracy, but since abstract arguments like that are difficult to plead effectively, it’s customary to argue that secrecy is also politically unwise. For example, it is clearly hypocritical. When Obama was president, Republicans complained that the White House was too secretive, and that Democrats were trying to railroad through health-care reform without public input—even though the process behind the Affordable Care Act was far more public and lengthy than the present process. But hypocrisy is seldom lethal for any politician, let alone a party, especially in today’s partisan climate.