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.
Another argument is that clamming up will actually hurt the clams. As Politico’s Playbook puts it today, “This could be bad for the White House, as it will be far more difficult for them to drive a message and respond to questions.” This might be true, but take it with a healthy dose of skepticism. For one, it’s obviously self-serving for journalists to say that giving journalists more access is good for them, and the press corps, smelling blood, is out for damaging stories about Trump. Sometimes openness is not a zero-sum game, but in this case, it probably is.
Second, where’s the proof? The George W. Bush administration was more secretive than the Clinton administration; the press howled; and Bush got reelected. The Obama administration was more secretive than the Bush administration; the press howled; and Obama got reelected. Part of Obama’s success was that he found other ways to get his message out: Social media, for example, and interviews with non-traditional interlocutors, from Zach Galifianakis to YouTube stars. Trump may be different in degree and extremity from his predecessors, but his administration’s secrecy is part of a disturbing, bipartisan progression.
The secrecy will continue as long as it works. It certainly worked in the House, where GOP leaders watched a first attempt at a health bill go down as its flaws became public. For the second try, they acted fast and quietly, not even waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to score the bill.
And so far, the strategy is working for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well. It’s not just Democrats and the press who are upset; some Republicans are speaking out too:
McCain to reporters just now: "We used to complain like hell when the democrats ran the Affordable Care Act, now we're doing the same thing"— Jesse Rodriguez (@JesseRodriguez) June 20, 2017
But until enough members of the GOP caucus actually demand that McConnell open up the process, their complaints will make little difference. In fact, that might be by design. McConnell and his lieutenants would much rather have an argument about process and take the lumps they get from that fight: They can write complaints off as either the whingeing of a biased press or hypocrisy from Democrats who did the same thing. That’s far better than trying to defend an unpopular bill that will likely push millions off insurance, redistribute money to the wealthy, and slash popular entitlements. The secrecy gives disgruntled Republican members of the caucus something else to complain about instead.
(The general public may not really be the audience from whom the Senate leadership is hiding its bill; public disapproval of the House health bill is already very high, and Democrats will vote en masse against it. The bigger danger for McConnell is that Republican constituencies—from the business lobby to GOP governors—will react fiercely to the bill and convince Republican senators to defect.)
Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, has taken a bold stand on behalf of Democratic colleagues, writing a letter to President Trump complaining about the executive branch ignoring document requests. But as long as Grassley stands alone, and has only angry letters to write, the White House can blithely ignore him, too.
In the long run, shutting out public attention can have some ill effects. Just ask Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has gone to historically drastic extents to avoid dealing with reporters. The result has been that the State Department can’t seem to ever present a clear message about what its policies are, and keeps getting undercut by the president. Perhaps cutting down on briefings will make the administration’s message control even worse, though it’s hard to imagine what that would look like. (The White House did belatedly add an on-camera briefing to Tuesday’s schedule.) Perhaps enough Republican senators will get upset about the closed-door health-care process to force it out into public hearings. But for as along as it continues to succeed, secrecy is likely here to stay.