Monday, March 22, 2010

Questions 1: The Democrats' Agenda

First, thanks for all the great questions, and keep them coming.
Chris Mealy asked:
Is a major bill passing like a big software launch? With software you always have version 1.1 coming out soon after 1.0. Will Congress have to pass a lot of little bills in the near future? What's the politics of that?
And anon at 11:26 asked:
What do you expect the average Democrat's platform on health care to be in the future? Is the issue going to sit on the back burner for a while before the next steps are taken, or is something like campaigning on the public option going to become an immediate feature of Democratic campaigns?
Ah, hitting at the edge of my expertise in two ways: policy substance, and software launches!  I guess the first thing to know is that a bill -- well, as of tomorrow, a law -- isn't really a completed product.  Laws tend to leave a lot of room for the agency or agencies that implement them to actually fill out the details.  Sometimes that's because the details aren't available to lawmakers; sometimes, it's because lawmakers kick the fight over details over to someone else so that they can pass the damn thing.  That doesn't mean that Congress has no influence over the details, because they can influence the bureaucracy through the budget, through oversight hearings, and through the appointment process.  You might think that the president controls implementation, but that's not actually true; he, too, can only fight for control of implementation -- his weapons are his influence over appointments, over the budget, and through the publicity he can bring to any issue.  Interests groups, too, battle over how a law is actually carried out.  And the bureaucrats who run the policy often have their own ideas of how to do it, and tend to resist outside interference (which includes Congress, interest groups, and the president).  So a lot of battles will be fought at that level.  Often, Congress will only pass a law as sort of a last resort in that sort of fight -- because passing laws is really hard, often a lot harder than, say, putting a hold on a nomination and bargaining for something.  Of course, that's especially hard as long as the Republicans hold 41 or more Senate seats and pursue a rejectionist strategy.

Now, all of that said, I think the public option is going to be a major plank of future (including 2010) Democratic campaigns, and is likely to become law in the not-distant future.  Short version of the argument: liberals really love it, it polls well and so candidates are unlikely to believe that it will hurt them, and it can be passed through a future reconciliation bill (and it scores well, so it can be used to "pay" for higher subsidy levels, or unrelated items, or even deficit reduction).  I think there's going to be a lot of pressure from liberals to add a public option through reconciliation in the next Congress, if Democrats still have the majority, and if it doesn't happen then I do think Obama is likely to campaign for it in 2012. 

As for smaller things that need to be done legislatively, I don't really know.  I think it's a lot harder to imagine getting a restructuring of the exchanges through Congress (to switch to the "national" exchanges in the original House bill rather than the "state" version in the bill that passed...scare quotes there because my understanding is that those are shorthand words for the differences, not really accurate descriptions.  But there may be one or more relatively small things that Republicans wouldn't strongly object to, probably tucked in to some larger measure rather than passing as stand-alone items.  Again, however, it's more likely that the Dems will try to affect things administratively, rather than by passing new laws.

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