You might remember the endless months in 2009 in which health care reform passage ground to a halt while Max Baucus pursued negotiations with Republicans, thus allowing Glenn Beck to destroy public support for the bill.
You might remember it, because everyone talks about it all the time -- David Atkins today in a post totally taken apart by Scott Lemieux today referred to it as "useless months of compromise-wrangling with a GOP acting in bad faith." You might remember it.
But it never happened.
Oh, sure, there was a Gang of Six negotiation. And yes, it did slow things down.
How much? By my estimate, about six weeks. Six weeks, most of which was concurrent with August recess, which was basically about four weeks long, and during which nothing would have happened otherwise. Realistically, I think the whole thing probably slowed things by 2-4 weeks, tops.
But it was certainly no more than six weeks.
What's more, I think there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that anything changes in terms of public opinion had the Senate Finance Committee managed to finish their version of the bill before leaving for August recess (which would have required not only no Gang of Six delay, but rushing things in other ways too). It was certainly, in my view at least, entirely unrealistic to expect Senate floor action by August, and virtually all of the public relations damage was done by mid-August.
It is simply not even remotely plausible that the Gang of Six process made any difference to public opinion. As it turned out, six weeks would have been very useful because of the Scott Brown election in January 2010 -- but that's true of other delays in the schedule as well, and there was no real reason in July 2009 to believe that there was a mid-January deadline. What's more, the Gang of Six delay may well have helped, not hurt, as I argued at the time. It helped with the problem of marginal Democrats who were unable to find the bipartisan cover they wanted; by going through the Gang of Six process, Max Baucus and Harry Reid were (in my view) much better able to convince them that Republicans were just being unreasonable and that the only choices available were supporting the bill with all the Democrats or opposing it with crazed rejectionist Republicans.
Much less excusable, however, was the post-Gang set of delays. In general, although it's important to keep in mind that the 111th Congress was highly productive, I've come to believe that there was a major opportunity missed and a major error made by Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi: they erred by sticking with a traditional Congressional schedule, instead of dramatically increasing the tempo. I don't really believe that an increased tempo would have done much for health care; it would have helped it pass in December 2009 instead of March 2010, but I don't really think that mattered very much. I do believe, however, that it was perhaps possible to have rushed through a couple of major pieces of recession-related legislation in spring 2009 had Congress come in and stayed in until they were done; I've suggested that perhaps Dodd-Frank and a bill to convert aid to state governments into an automatic (long-term budget-neutral) stabilizer would have been the things to go for. I'm not sure it could have happened -- remember that there were only 58 Democrats in the Senate at the time -- and there would have been some downside risks for trying it, but I really do believe it was possible, and that not trying was a significant mistake. Neither Obama's popularity (probably) nor the sense of crisis was nearly as high as it was in March 1933, but it was close enough that I suspect they could have used it. And certainly, as I argued then, Congress could have moved quicker on health care and other things (yes, nominations) by keeping to a more accelerated schedule.
All that said, however, a lot of the critics of the process just don't seem to have any sense at all of how long it takes to process major legislation. The thirteen months or so that Congress spent on ACA seems about par for the course to me, given that it was one of the more complex bills you'll ever see, and that it was extremely controversial and difficult to pass, and that Republicans used more or less every procedural avenue available to them to slow things down (some of which in my view the Democrats should have steamrolled over, but nevertheless).
And one way or another, the Gang of Six delay was really just spare change in all of that. The real time consuming negotiations weren't Gang of Six; they were sincere substantive negotiations among bill supporters, and very difficult negotiations between Democratic bill supporters and Democratic Senators who were reluctant to vote for it. I know I'm not going to change anyone's minds about this, but the Gang of Six thing just didn't matter very much, and it certainly wasn't responsible for months of delay.