Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Endless Summer 2009 -- the Biggest Myth of ACA Passage

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.


  1. So you think it was actually possible for Obama and Pelosi to spend even MORE money than they did?

    I doubt it. Infinity is a pretty tough number to top, isn't it? ;-)

    And in historical terms, $900B worth of Porkulus is pretty much infinity.

    Just as a reality check here, and a bit of nostalgia lookback, to back when the Left actually did have a bit of fiscal discipline about them, we should consider Clinton's first 100 days in 1993. Upon his election, he asked for a $15B stimulus package.

    It's almost quaint, to think about numbers that minuscule, isn't it?

    And the D Congress refused to give it to him.

    That skinflint yankee, George Mitchell, REFUSED TO GIVE THAT $15B TO A NEWLY ELECTED PRESIDENT.

    It's amusing, and instructive, to look back on that. My, how the Left has changed. And not for the better.

  2. Anon: How did Obama buy off the CBO to score the ACA as reducing the deficit? Why did it not pay enough money/provide enough favors to the CBO so that the organization scored all of the ACA's provisions?

  3. I suppose I'll do a factual correction, FWIW; of course in 1993 George Mitchell did in fact support Clinton's stimulus, but it was defeated by a GOP filibuster.

  4. I'm more interested in why the 111th congress couldn't also manage to pass an extension of the middle class only part of the Bush tax cut, along with a raise in the debt ceiling. When the time came to vote on those they seemed to have been done rather quickly.

  5. Anon #2: A good point, but you're not even including another one, which is the Dem Congress not passing a final budget. Both of which seem like massive failures, and the dithering on the tax debate was palpable...I don't recall anything happening on the floors.

    As for our host's argument on the delays not meaning much, or being useful for convincing Dems that the GOP was simply obstructionist.... we'll have to agree to disagree on the first, and on the second, I would think that they would have figured that out much earlier. I think it seemed obvious by late spring 2009. (Of course, this could be hindsight)

  6. A brick is not a wall. And six weeks in a month and a half. There was a clear lack of urgency on this. 13 months was too long for a bill.

  7. @Anon #2, maybe the Dems didn't make the tax code changes because they weren't certain of their mandate. A lot of Dems don't have comfortable margins in their seats, and raising taxes may not be one of the first things they want to do once they have a solid majority. It would definitely strengthen the tax-and-spend image. Better to tackle a big issue that the Republicans have no policy for--the uninsured.

  8. James, ObamaCare was tricked up to provide the scoring they wanted: years studied, program roll out, etc. The CBO simply answers the questions asked of it.

    Mr. Bernstein, Mitchell could have bought off that little $15B stimulus package, if he'd truly wanted it. I can name you the 5-8 R votes he'da gotten, if he'd wanted them.

    Yes, Mitchell for the record was putting blame for that stimulus package rejection on the R's, but inside baseball of the era told us that he didn't want it. He and congressional leaders visited Little Rock shortly after the election and informed young Bill of the ground rules, and that he wouldn't be given any special stimulus from that Congress. The Washington dance played out, politically, but rejection was a fait accompli.

    Remember, Ross Perot had just run and got 19% of the electorate, and deficit fighting was the order of the day. Mitchell couldn't be seen as a profligate spender, and he damn well knew it (see 1994), but he wanted the issue vs. the R's, so he and Clinton agreed on the final political strategy. I vaguely recall even hearing this strategy outlined on NPR, but don't quote me. And you know Clinton was in on the scam, because there's no way he'd waste time asking for a paltry $15B, unless it was purely political. He'da gone full tilt boogie a la Obama/Pelosi, if he could have.

    Mitchell was FAR more fiscally conservative than the reckless mob the Left is currently fielding, no doubt about it.

    And to others, some of the most damaging things done by Pelosi/Obama/Reid have been NOT addressing the tax issue pre-election 2010, and not passing budgets. After the suicidal Christmas Eve 2009 ObamaCare vote, the Senate honorables hunkered down and hid, and are yet hiding, and that contributed to the slaughter last November. You gotta fish or cut bait. That has all just been a pure rookie mistake, and has dispirited their base politically.

    Neophytes. Political incompetents. Bad enough to enact bad policy, but if you also fail at politics, you deserve to get blown out. If Obama was fit, that never would have happened.

  9. Why did we end up with such a mish mash of a bill if it wasn't for Baucus.
    There was support for something like single payer.


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