Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning and Passing Laws

I've mentioned a couple of times now that one of the key things about the public option during the health care fight was just how new a policy idea the public option really was -- it was basically invented for the 2008 campaign.  I think that was part of why it was so hard to get it passed.

By contrast, health care as a general topic was, in legislative terms, ancient.  Supporters knew the terrain real, real, well, and a large part of why 2009-2010 had a different outcome than 1993-1994 was that Congress and the White House over the last two years treated the previous failure as a trial run.  Now, we don't know yet exactly which things made a difference -- and the composition of the Senate, which had nothing to do with legislative strategy, was a key part of success this time.  So I don't mean to suggest that we should put too much weight on strategy.  However, I tend to think that to the extent that strategy mattered, the Democrats consistently chose the path that made eventual passage more likely, in large part because they learned from previous mistakes.

What strikes me about climate change, then, as I read things such as this interview, is how new this issue really is.  Sure, it's been around for over a decade, but this is really the first-ever serious legislative effort.  Energy, of course, isn't new, and neither is the environment.  But climate change?  It really is a fairly new legislative topic.  As such, I think there was an enormous amount of uncertainty going wasn't clear which interests had to be coddled, and which ones opposed; which Democratic Senators were likely to be on board without trouble and which would be tricky; which political allies needed to be enthusiastic and which needed only to be satisfied.

Now, I have to say that I'm not a policy expert, by any means, so I'm not as familiar with any relevant literatures as I might be.  I know of Nelson W. Polsby on Political Innovation, and David Mayhew's America's Congress, which is about individual Members and how they affect policy, but neither of those is really about what I'm talking about, I don't think.  And there are numerous how-a-bill-becomes-a-law books, such as Victoria Farrar-Myers and Diana Dwyre's Limits and Loopholes (about the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill) that invariably span several Congresses from the introduction of an idea until the president's signing ceremony.  I'm not aware, however, of any study about how long it takes successful bills to become laws.  At any rate, it sure seems to me that the normally time frame for successful legislation is just short of forever, and that the relative inexperience everyone had with climate as an active issue may turn out to have been a big part of the difficulties the climate/energy bill has encountered during this Congress.

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