Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Big Bills Take Time

Kevin Drum makes several good points here and I agree with his main point, and I hope to get to the general topic later...but he ran into one of my pet peeves and so I'm all about the rapid response on this one. It's just not true that ACA took a lot longer than it needed to.

Why did healthcare reform take so long? Not because of any clever strategy on Obama's part. It was because, right or wrong, he made a rational calculation not to repeat Bill Clinton's mistakes. So instead of pushing a plan of his own, he let Congress take the lead. And Congress decided to move very, very slowly.
It's true that Congress moved slowly, and it's true that Obama didn't take the lead, at least in terms of preparing a fully formed bill to drop in the hopper (although the bill basically followed the outline of his campaign plan, and the White House was highly involved every step of the way). And it's even true that Congress could have moved slightly quicker in 2009 -- and that it's vaguely possible that they could have finished a reconciled bill in late December, instead of only getting ready for conference at that point.

But mostly, the bill took time because moving major legislation takes a lot of time, and this was one huge piece of legislation. It was going to take time to write the bill, to mark up the bill, to form coalitions, to cut deals...all that had to happen, and there just wasn't much choice in the matter. What's more, Republicans were insisting, and had the procedural precedents to do so, in dragging things out as long as possible.

Congress can move very quickly when it wants to (TARP, for example, came to the floor with no delays at all, and only a floor defeat slowed it up a bit). Given that ACA was going to get at least near-unanimous opposition from Republicans and that they would use more or less every possible procedural mechanism available to them to slow it down, there was just no way that it was going to be resolved in fewer than eight or nine months.

The one piece of legislation that I think Obama and the Democrats might have moved very quickly was Dodd-Frank. I can imagine a choice to work out a bill during November and December 2008, a successful GOP buy-in of at least half a dozen Senators, and then an accelerated 1933-style process parallel to the stimulus bill or even before that one. It's possible that in the depths of the recession and the very first days of the Obama presidency that a fair number of Republicans might -- might! -- have chosen cooperation over confrontation on the banking issue. But health care? That was always going to be a fierce partisan fight, and therefore it was going to take time. No matter who was in the Oval Office.


  1. I remember in 2009 reading reports that the goal was to have the bill passed by the end of the summer. Was that always unrealistic? Why did the administration think it was possible?

  2. I think a great deal of the problem was the failure of reform advocates to present a united front to match the front of the GOP. Now, it may simply have been impossible for them to do so, and that perhaps was the best argument for not proceeding with reform until the internal dissension among Democrats could be ironed out. As it was, the public was presented not only with arguments from the GOP, but also with arguments, bargaining, and ferocious disagreement among reform supporters. That may, from the standpoint of civics or political philosophy, be the very essence of democracy. I am sorry to say, however, that large sections of the public found it first baffling, then annoying, then exasperating, then appalling. In the end the majority felt confused and disgusted.

    It may be that presenting a united front might not have helped, to undermine my own comments. It is very likely that, as the process continued, the public would have become extremely exasperated by the delay, with the attitude "Just get it DONE!". The reform forces would have been seen as dangerously incompetent, once again undermining public trust. This, I am afraid, is a very good case to use in arguing for the superiority of the Westminster system. I don't know where I stand on that question, but I must admit the HCR effort makes one long (perhaps naively and mistakenly) for the perceived efficiency and common sense of Britain/Canada/Australia.


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