For all sorts of legal reasons -- some silly, some profound -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force on health care reform will be able to continue working in deepest secrecy until the White House lifts its cover. That is the practical outcome of a court decision that found President Clinton "in direct violation" of existing law but allowed closed-door procedures to continue.
The actual violation finds the First Lady in a kind of Catch-22 situation. Under the anti-nepotism statute forbiding presidents from appointing close relatives to federal posts (a measure passed to protest John Kennedy's selection of his brother Robert as attorney general), Mrs. Clinton could not be made a federal official. And because she lacks that status, the task force she heads falls under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, with its sunshine provisions on private individuals and interests.
Under a ruling by Federal Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the tangled situation sorts out this way: More than 300 unnamed staffers will go on working in secret, their identifies more closely held than advisers on national security. Once they are ready to present their material to Mrs. Clinton and her task force, the public supposedly will be let in on information affecting every citizen. Then the curtain will fall again as the task force formulates policy and communes with the president.
This arrangement reflects a White House desire for quick action to revolutionize the national health care system. Judge Lamberth was sympathetic with the president's need to get candid advice from his experts. But as orchestrated by the Clinton FTC administration, secrecy is also being used to safeguard staffers from outside pressures and to keep certain interested groups, such as the American Medical Association, at arm's length.
Today Mrs. Clinton is to hold a forum in Tampa, Fla., the first of four around the country, for the ostensible purpose of allowing the public to air its grievances and express its desires for reform. But in no way will this satisfy the desires of health industry and consumer organizations for expert input into the actual work of the task force.
While the Clintons appear to have maneuvered successfully around loophole-strewn laws, they would be well advised to heed this comment by Judge Lamberth: "The public has the right to know what information is being presented to the Task Force and by whom it is being given; to learn the costs involved in the gathering of the facts; and to attend these meetings." Secrecy may succeed for the present, but only at the cost of raising public skepticism and perhaps even a backlash later on.