Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Timeline: What Were They Doing?

Matt Yglesias is really a great blogger, not least because he'll fess up when he gets something wrong. 

He also says:
Baucus’ process took forever, but it ended with a decent bill and he’s worked very diligently to see reform enacted. My dark suspicions were unfounded. And yet my logic was impeccable—the months and months of delay really did make no sense. And in part what’s playing out in Massachusetts is the bitter fruit of that decision.
To review, however, there was a reason for dragging on the "Group of Six" talks -- it provided cover for marginal Democrats, who were able to claim (and receive some support from neutral observers for claiming) that Democrats had tried their best to compromise, only to have Republicans walk away.

Now, I don't know how to balance that against the need for speed.  I can say a couple of things about it...the polling on both Obama, overall, and on health care, in particular, dropped rapidly in the spring and early summer, and then plateaued about where they are now somewhere in the early-to-middle portion of the August Town Hall craziness.  So, going slow didn't cause a problem with the polls.  Of course, that's not what is putting health care reform in danger right now; it's the MA election.  I think it's worth walking through the timeline, however, to figure out exactly what went wrong.

The first thing to see is that the bill didn't get out of its final House Committee until just before August recess.  Now, it's certainly possible that the House dragged its feet because they didn't want floor action before recess given that the Senate wouldn't be going to the floor yet...but I don't think it's fair to say that Senate Finance should have finished before the House committees.  The House didn't act until the very end of July, so let's set that as the earliest that the Senate could have been expected to finish. 

The delay for Gang of Six negotiations was basically over by the end of recess.  However, Baucus didn't actually produce a bill until September 16.  Whatever the reasons for delay over the Gang of Six, Baucus really has no excuse for not moving quickly once that was over.  The Obama speech to Congress was on September 10; Baucus can at least be fairly blamed for not having a bill ready to go on the 11th, although really there's no reason he couldn't have had a bill ready to go a week earlier.  I'll say that's one wasted week.  What were they doing?

Mark-up took a long time.  It sort of finished, however, on October 5, with a delay on the final vote until CBO could score the newly amended bill.  Now, the Dems could have pushed through without waiting for scoring...but the real point, here, is that the final vote (on October 13) was a formality. 

And now we get to the real disaster.  On October 6, the Senate Finance bill was ready to reconcile with the Senate HELP bill.  But while a lot of amendments were accepted to Baucus's mark, the bill that emerged in October from Senate Finance wasn't all that different from the one that Baucus unveiled on September 16.  Reid, Baucus, and Dodd should have been ready to hit the ground running on October 6, with preliminary work already well underway.  Instead, it took until October 26 for Reid to announce that his bill would include a public option, and then until November 18th to release the full bill.  There really was no excuse for the delay; the only thing that changed between October 6 and mid-November was the House vote on Stupak, but that wasn't the delay at that point.  What were they doing?

And, then, finally, with the bill passing on December 24, the Democrats decided there was no need to rush anything -- why not take a nice long vacation?  By all accounts, another week (plus) was lost, December 25 through Sunday, January 3.  In this case, serious negotiations could not have started while the Senate outcome was uncertain, but once the managers' amendment was filed and received cloture (on December 19, I believe) the rest of the Senate debate was just running out the clock -- they could have started right then.  But they didn't.  Again: what were they doing?

By my count, we're talking at least four, and perhaps as many as seven, weeks, of just foot-dragging, weeks in which no one seemed to treat the end of the year (or for that matter January 19, the scheduled MA special election) as any sort of a deadline.  Some of this seems to have been just plain ceremonial waiting -- we can't start reconciling the bills until the Finance Committee final vote, we can't start conference until the Senate actually passes things.  Since, however, the eventual negotiations were informal and behind closed doors, there was nothing at all to prevent moving ahead as soon as possible. 

The truth is that as far as I can see the Democrats could and should have had this done by Christmas -- final passage, both Houses of Congress -- despite the perhaps justifiable decision to wait until after August recess to pull the plug on the Gang of Six.  The fault here doesn't appear to lie with Baucus; it appears to lie with Harry Reid, and perhaps also with the White House and with Nancy Pelosi.

What were they doing?


  1. Good timeline here. I doubt we will get answer soon but seriously, what was with this strange pace of the last few months? Democrats acknowledge openly how frustrated everyone is with the process yet they don't seem able to speed it up.

    Really strange behavior on the part of Dem leadership.

  2. I think Baucus deserves a little more of the blame than you assign. Especially after passing Waxman-Markey, House Dems were nervous about getting too far ahead of the Senate again -- I remember a lot of griping of that sort at the time. If they'd had any sign of progress out of Senate Finance, it would've been easier to move forward.

  3. I agree that the House was upset and slowed down, although I think most of that was after the August recess, and at any rate I don't see any way the bill could have passed the full Senate before August recess, Gang of Six or no. Really, I think the Gang of Six stuff slowed things down only about six weeks, most of that during the August break.

    My main point, though, is that the Gang of Six was an understandable choice, involving trade-offs that one can agree or disagree with (time vs. cover for moderates). The foot dragging after that served no purpose I can think of. Unless reporting after the fact turns up something I can't think of now, I suspect it's just Harry Reid on a business-as-usual routine, when circumstances called for a very different approach. (And I think the same is true for nominations).

    I think Reid deserves a lot of credit for handling the negotiations well, except for the time thing. But it sure looks as if the time thing mattered a lot.


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