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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> December 2009

Why the Filibuster Is More Essential Now Than Ever

Ezra Klein had a provocative column in Sunday's Washington Post, arguing that it's time to eliminate or substantially weaken the filibuster in the United States Senate. He writes:

The modern Senate is a radically different institution than the Senate of the 1960s, and the dysfunction exhibited in its debate over health care -- the absence of bipartisanship, the use of the filibuster to obstruct progress rather than protect debate, the ability of any given senator to hold the bill hostage to his or her demands -- has convinced many, both inside and outside the chamber, that it needs to be fixed.

Klein cites a study from Barbara Sinclair showing that the filibuster is used much more frequently now - up from 8% of "major bills" to 70%. This is as sure a sign as any that reform is needed, that the two parties can't be allowed to succeed by using the politics of obstruction anymore.

Yet Klein's reasoning is imprecise. After all, the legislative process has not become "broken." It is largely the same process as it was decades ago. The real change has occurred within the two Senate parties. They are using the filibuster more aggressively in their quest for political success. This raises an important question that Klein leaves unaddressed: if the parties are more unrelentingly partisan now than in ages past, is it prudent to lower the barriers that prevent them from enacting sweeping policy changes?

On this question, I come down squarely in the negative. The increased use of the filibuster is not so much a consequence of Senate "dysfunction" as it is a desirable check upon it. Given this, it makes much more sense to leave the filibuster intact.

The following chart demonstrates that the two political parties have become substantially more polarized over the last 45 years. It uses the DW-Nominate methodology to track the ideological distribution of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate from the 89th Congress (1965-1967) to the 110th (2007-2009):

Ideological Distribution of US Senators.jpg

Three important trends are evident from this picture. First, the party extremes have grown farther apart. Second, there are now fewer genuine moderates in the United States Senate than at any point in the last half century. Third, there used to be a sizeable ideological overlap between the two parties in the Senate. It no longer exists. Put simply, the Senate parties have become ideologically polarized.

This helps explain the increasing use of the filibuster. As the parties drift apart ideologically, the majority party will more likely introduce legislation that the minority party can't accept, giving the latter a stronger incentive to block it via the filibuster. Using the filibuster is thus a rational response when one finds oneself in the smaller half of a polarized chamber, which is more likely to be the case today than 45 years ago.

This points to a highly beneficial purpose the filibuster can serve. Per Klein, it is indeed an obstructionist tool, but it is also a way to promote moderate policies, even as the parties have become more ideologically extreme. In other words, thanks to the filibuster, an ideologically extreme majority party cannot simply enact its policy preferences as it sees fit. Instead, it must either find common ground with some on the other side, or do nothing. In other words, the filibuster has an effect similar to that of a large body of water on the climate of the neighboring coast, keeping the temperature from getting too hot or too cold.

Think of it this way. When Democrats are in charge, they will endeavor to pull the policy needle to the left. To succeed, they will have to negotiate with the pivotal legislator. If the status quo is retained, that would be the 60th senator, who will sustain a filibuster if he is not satisfied. On the other hand, if the filibuster is eliminated, the Democrats will only have to appeal to the 50th senator, who will by definition be more liberal than the 60th. Policy outputs would thus shift leftward, perhaps dramatically so. The same goes for the GOP. When Republicans are in charge, they must find common ground with the 60th senator, which will result in much more moderate policies than what we'd see if the filibuster is eliminated. I would point to the 109th Congress. If George W. Bush had to appeal to Norm Coleman rather than Mary Landrieu, the Republicans would have gotten plenty more done, and their policy outputs would have been much more conservative.

Over time, this suggests that changes in control of the Senate will not yield big swings in policy output so long as the filibuster is allowed to remain largely as is. Liberal majorities will have to negotiate with a center-right senator, and conservative majorities will have to negotiate with a center-left senator. Eliminate it, and you'll see bigger swings in policy as control of the upper chamber changes hands.

We are thus faced with a choice. We can get rid of the filibuster to facilitate legislative policymaking, but we should brace ourselves for ideologically polarizing laws that will leave a third to a half of the country deeply unsatisfied. Democrats will enact very liberal policies; Republicans very conservative ones. On the other hand, keeping the filibuster in place will mean less gets done - as the two polarized parties have trouble finding common ground - but whatever policies are produced will be more moderate and less offensive to the losing faction.

I strongly favor moderate-if-infrequent policy changes. It is not ideal - I find the compromised, moderate Senate health care bill highly objectionable, and of course the filibuster can be used for narrowly partisan purposes - but it is preferable to the alternative of ideologically polarized policy-making.

An institutionalized filibuster was not a provision that the Framers implemented when they created the government. Still, it has tended to crop up during highly polarized periods in American political history: the fight between Democrats and Whigs over the Bank of the United States, the ante-bellum political breakdown of the 1850s, the post-war fights over civil rights, and of course today.

While the Framers did not make provisions for a filibuster, the procedure nevertheless reminds me of Madison's thinking in Federalist #10:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction...

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Madison argues in this consequential essay that "the latent causes of faction are...sown in the nature of man." Thus, the only way to control its ill effects is by proper management within the government. Madison believed that a large republic characterized by a system of checks and balances could accomplish this task.

I would suggest that the increased use of the filibuster is a way to check two political parties that resemble factional cliques, neither of which broadly appeals to the whole country. Eliminating it would allow for more legislation to be passed into law, but I fear this legislation would have a factional element to it - and like Madison I believe that a well constructed government should "break and control" the "violence of faction."

That's an interesting phrase Madison uses - "violence of faction." It turned out to be quite prescient. After all, the Civil War was more of a sectional war or a factional war than anything else. Today, with the two parties so divided, it is not unreasonable to worry about the long-term effects of one side pulling the policy needle so far in one direction. Eliminating the filibuster might mean that the victorious party gets a lot more done, but how will the losers react over time?

I doubt very much that there would be another civil war! Still, "violence" doesn't necessarily imply war, or even physical confrontation. We could instead see ever more violent passions on the two ideological poles, as the losing side is increasingly outraged by the many "tyrannies" of the majority party. It's easy to take for granted the bonds that hold the national Union together, but that does not mean they are indestructible. Allowing one side or the other to enact root-and-branch changes via a bare majority could, over time, weaken them as the losers become more frustrated and angry.

There could also be violent swings in the policy needle. If nothing more than a simple majority is necessary for sweeping changes, what stops a newly victorious party from undoing all the reforms implemented by the old majority, and instituting its own set of big changes? What would be the long-term consequences of that? If every biennial or quadrennial election brought the prospect of big changes in public policy - how could we practically plan for the future? We all expect things in 2013 to be generally the same as things in 2009. Eliminate the filibuster, empower a bare majority to impose ideologically extreme policies, and that expectation could become unreasonable.

Meanwhile, if we keep the filibuster in place, we will likely stop major policy reforms from being implemented today - but that does not mean that we have prohibited them forever. After all, we have biennial elections in this country, which means that those whose policy goals have been thwarted can re-litigate their case before the electorate as many times as they like. They can hit the stump, advocate for their policy proposals, try to convince constituents of filibustering senators to vote them out of office, and send a more favorable majority to the new Congress. If the opposition has been crassly political, filibustering not out of honest disagreements but narrow partisan calculations - the policy advocates will have a strong case to take to the voters. Additionally, advocates can always return to the drawing board, and come up with a better policy proposal, one that can forge the kind of broad coalition that the filibuster requires. Put simply, retaining the filibuster makes it harder to solve problems, but certainly not impossible.

So, I'm drawn to the following conclusion. As much as I would like to see Congress solve big problems more ably, I do not want to see solutions that are ideologically extreme, as I think that over the long run they could cause more trouble than they solve. In the absence of broad policy agreements - which are clearly lacking here at the end of 2009 - I am glad for the institution of the filibuster and would staunchly oppose attempts to modify it substantially. Keeping it as is will mean fewer reforms are ultimately passed, but those that are passed stand a better chance of succeeding in a broad, diverse republic such as ours. So long as the two parties are so far apart ideologically, I will support the filibuster, regardless of which side is in charge.

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-Jay Cost

On the Parker Griffith Switch

Parker Griffith (D-AL) will announce today that he is switching to the Republican Party. For a President who thrives on "keeping the ball rolling," this is an unfortunate loss of momentum as Senate Democrats get set to pass their health reform bill.

Griffith is but one of more than 250 House Democrats, and he was a certain nay on next month's health care vote - yet his switch is still interesting. It indicates that the decades-long geographical and ideological sorting of both parties is ongoing.

Media pundits have been quick to focus on how the Republican Party has become too conservative for moderate Northeastern Republicans, leaving people like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as outliers and making it difficult for the GOP to win seats in Connecticut, New Hampshire, or upstate New York. This is most certainly true. From 2001 to 2008, George W. Bush was in charge of the Republican Party, and he had all the qualities of a Southern Republican. This made it difficult for Northeastern Republicans to stay in the party. It was a matter of politics (Bush's appeal in the Northeast was quite limited) and policy (southern Republicans controlled the agenda and wrote legislation that they preferred). All of this put pressure on Northeastern Republicans, whose survival rate in the 2006-08 electoral wipeouts was virtually nil.

Now that the Democrats are in charge, we're seeing a similar dynamic on their side of the aisle. Northern, urban liberals control the Democratic Party. They hold the key committee chairs, most of the big leadership posts, and of course the presidency. These sorts of Democrats are not politically popular in the South, which makes life difficult for moderate Southern Democrats. Plus, the Northern liberal leaders write policy that is well to the left of Parker Griffith, who hails from northern Alabama. It's not easy for a guy like Griffith to remain in the Democratic Party, especially in light of the fact that many believe next year will be a bad election for Democrats. Griffith is exactly the kind of member most in danger of being swept away - just like Republicans Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays, and Rob Simmons all lost their Connecticut House seats between 2006 and 2006. He is new to Congress, having won his seat by the narrowest of margins in 2008 while his district gave John McCain 61% of the vote.

Bottom line: while we shouldn't expect any MSM pundit discussions about how Griffith's departure is a sign of the "narrowing" of the Democratic Party, this is still a noteworthy development. Just as the Republican Party's rightward and Southern shift has placed a burden on moderate Northeastern Republicans, so the Democratic Party's leftward and Northern shift has put pressure on moderate Southern Democrats. Now that the liberal Democrats are in charge - pushing their agenda and taking responsibility for the state of the Union - this pressure has become more salient. Griffith may or may not be the only Democrat to make an actual jump to the GOP, but his departure from the Democratic Party underscores the tension between the liberal leadership and many Southern moderates as the House prepares for a big health care vote.

We saw a similar dynamic in 1993-95, as moderate Democrats in the House (e.g. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana) and the Senate (e.g. Richard Shelby of Alabama) jumped to the GOP. That sets up the following expectation: if the GOP picks up 35 to 39 seats next year, John Boehner and Eric Cantor will work like the dickens to convince some disgruntled moderate Democrats to make the jump to the GOP.

As a final point, I'd note with interest that the difference between Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Pelosi actually depends on Democrats who, like Griffith, hail from McCain districts. Forty-nine districts voted for John McCain but sent Democrats to the House of Representatives. Liberal votes on cap-and-trade, health care, the jobs bill, and so on puts a strain on many of them. Griffith might not be the last party-switcher when it's all said and done.

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-Jay Cost

Democrats Risk Another Jacksonian Moment

Several years ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the first time as an adult. My most vivid memory from that journey was walking away from Union Station - looking to my left at the United States Capitol, then looking to my right to see...the Teamster's Union building.

It was a disheartening sight - not because I have anything against the Teamsters, but because it reminded me that they're down there: the lobbyists, the special interests, the rent-seekers - all looking to extract favors from the Congress.

Like all Americans, I know that they're down there, and I don't think it is a good way for a government to function. Yet, I tolerate it - because I believe they're mostly just tinkering at the margins. Sure, they're diverting some of my tax dollars to things that have nothing to do with me - but it's a tiny portion. As long as they're not actively getting in my way - I'm inclined to shake my head, but let it be. I reckon that many Americans feel the same.

This is why Democratic leaders are courting disaster with this health care bill. With it, they've moved their questionable wheelings and dealings from the margins to the center of American life. And because of this, they risk being swept away in another Jacksonian moment.

Make no mistake. This bill is so unpopular because it has all the characteristics that most Americans find so noxious about Washington.

It stinks of politics. Why is there such a rush to pass this bill now? It's because the President of the United States recognizes that it is hurting his numbers, and he wants it off the agenda. It might not be ready to be passed. In fact, it's obviously not ready! Yet that doesn't matter. The President wants this out of the way by his State of the Union Address. This is nakedly self-interested political calculation by the President - nothing more and nothing less.

What makes this all the more perversely political is that the bill's benefits do not kick in for years. Why? Politics again! Democrats wish to claim that the bill reduces the deficit, so they collect ten years worth of revenue but only pay five years worth of benefits.

The Congress and the President are rushing to wait - not because that's best for health care, but best for the political careers of Washington Democrats.

It stinks of influence peddlers. Reviewing winners and losers in the Senate health care bill shows clearly that it was written with the full advice and consent of privileged interest groups. Here are some of the most amazing provisions, courtesy of the AP:

-Nebraska, Louisiana, Vermont and Massachusetts. These states are getting more federal help with Medicaid than other states. In the case of Nebraska -- represented by Sen. Ben Nelson, who's providing the critical 60th vote for the legislation to pass -- the federal government is picking up 100 percent of the tab of a planned expansion of the program, in perpetuity.

-Beneficiaries of Medicare Advantage plans -- the private managed-care plans within Medicare -- in Florida. Hundreds of thousands of them will have their benefits grandfathered in thanks to a provision tailored by Sen. Bill Nelson.

-Longshoremen. They were added to the list of workers in high-risk professions who are shielded from the full impact of a proposed new tax on high-value insurance plans.

Big corporations get nice paydays, too. Private insurance industries get the public option eliminated. Meanwhile, PhRMA made sure that there would be no significant prescription drug re-importation provision in the bill. Byron Dorgan said the FDA might have put the kibosh on it because of pressure from the White House.

Yet when it comes to big, wet kisses for entrenched interests, you can't beat the individual mandate. People will soon have to buy health insurance from private companies, or else face a tax penalty from Uncle Sam. Democrats who think they can come back later to fix this perverse result are kidding themselves. The insurance lobby is already so powerful that Democrats couldn't get the public option through now - what makes them think they'll be able to later, after they've given insurers 30 million additional customers, and required every last American to do business with them? The insurance companies are going to be to the 21st century what Standard Oil was to the 19th.

It stinks of partisanship. Not a single Republican will vote for this bill in the Senate. I doubt it will get a single House Republican if the Stupak language is excluded. Partisan Democrats like to think that this is because Republicans are too partisan. That's ridiculous. Nobody can seriously accuse Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins of partisan hackery. Plus, Orin Hatch has been a major player in health care reform over the years, and Chuck Grassley made a good faith effort this summer to find common ground.

The fact that the President can't find a single Republican vote out of more than 200 potential supporters is a strong indication that this is a bad bill. The only people willing to vote for it are people who share with the President interests that are unrelated to health care. The biggest shared interest is their political livelihood: Democrats sink or swim together. But that's a horrible reason to vote for a bill that will affect so many people in such a profound way.

Ben Nelson sits in the middle of the Senate. He could be a Democrat or a Republican. If he were a Republican, but everything else about him were the same, would he have voted for this? Of course not. That should tell you everything you need to know about this bill.

People in Congress and the lobbyists who court them have pretty good gigs. They have nice offices, make big salaries, and have lots of people hop to at their say so. Yet ultimately, all of their money, power, and prestige come from the people. The people are the sole source of sovereignty in our nation. Our Constitution opens, "We the people of the United States" - not "We the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of the United States" or "We the senior members of Congress with plum committee assignments." Everything about our system is the way it is because the people allow it to be that way. This is why it's best for the entrenched interests and the politicians to keep their under-handed means and particularistic ends from affecting the people. They can take it all away in a single instant - so the smart approach is not to give them a reason.

This Congress and this President seem hell-bent on ignoring that maxim. It started last year with TARP. It continued into this year with the pork-laden, wasteful stimulus bill. It moved to the auto bailouts, reckless deficit spending, and coziness with Wall Street. And now, it has moved to health care "reform." The people are taking notice, they don't like it, and they're starting to blame the government for the weakened state of the union.

We might be on the verge of another Jacksonian moment: a time when the people awake from their slumber, angrily exercise their sovereign authority, and mercilessly fire the leaders who have for too long catered to the elites rather than average people. The first time this happened was in 1828 - when the people rallied to the cause of Old Hickory to avenge the "Corrupt Bargain" of four years prior. It's happened several times throughout the centuries. Most relevant to today, it happened time and again in the 1880s and 1890s, as the people hired then fired one Republican and Democratic majority after another in search of leaders who could attend to the people's interests instead of the special interests. That age saw the birth of the Populist Party. It was a time when so many felt so disgruntled by the political process that young William Jennings Bryan - just thirty-six years old and with only two terms in the House - came within a hundred thousand votes of the presidency.

I wonder if we've returned to that kind of dynamic. In true Jacksonian fashion, the country fired the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 because they bungled the war in Iraq and allowed the economy to sink into recession. They might soon have another Jacksonian moment, and fire these equally useless Democrats for hampering the recovery, exploding the deficit, and playing politics with health care.

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-Jay Cost

The Democrats' Health Care Dilemma

Ben Nelson's reticence to vote for a bill that does not satisfy Nebraska Right to Life is a perfect example of American pluralism - the idea that our system grants a seat at the table to a wide array of diverse groups, each of which is empowered with a veto over policies that affect them. It's also a sign that the resolution of the health care fight will be trickier than many pundits have suggested.

I have frequently heard analysts propose that the Democrats will pass a bill because they must, because the party requires it to retain an appearance of competence (or, at a minimum, to avoid the appearance of incompetence). I would not dispute that this is a vital part of the calculus, but it is not the whole game. The way I view the politics of the health care debate is akin to a potential collective action dilemma. This type of interaction presents several complications to the "they will because they must" argument.

Before we get into those, it's important to remember two basic points about our system. First, the United States Congress does not represent the interests of the whole country. That's a fallacy of composition. Instead, it's the meeting place of all the representatives of the parts of the country. Thus, individual senators and congressmen ultimately rise or fall based not on how they serve the nation, but their local constituents. Second, and relatedly, nobody in Congress is electorally responsible to a national political party. Party affiliation in Congress is membership in a "long coalition" based on mutual interests. There is no blood oath to be taken, and a member of Congress can defect from the national party line and suffer few consequences if local constituents are comfortable with that decision. The bonds of partisan affiliation certainly help major legislation get passed, but they are rarely sufficient.


So, with those preliminaries out of the way, I'd suggest that there are three issues that complicate "they will because they must."

Complicating issue number one: each Democratic senator enjoys the benefit of an improved reputation individually, but some might enjoy it less than others. The most obvious way this point operates is that a third of the Senate is not up for reelection until 2014, by which point any reputational benefit for passing health care reform will have been greatly diminished. But the reputational benefit also depends on a senator's constituents. For instance, Pat Leahy is the senior senator from Vermont, one of the most liberal states in the country. His chances of reelection are near 100%, and any changes in the party's reputation will barely affect that. Meanwhile, Ben Nelson is the senior senator from Nebraska, one of the most conservative states in the country. He survives by cultivating his own reputation. Most Nebraska voters are Republican sympathizers, so Nelson wins reelection because they like him, not necessarily his party. Improving the Democratic Party's reputation will probably help Nelson, but only marginally.

In reality, the person whose reputation depends most upon the passage of a bill is Barack Obama. Yet he doesn't have a vote in the Senate anymore!

Complicating issue number two: each Democratic senator has to do something to deliver this reputational benefit. Namely, each must vote for final passage. For many Democrats, this is not going to be a problem. Their constituents like the bill, or at least trust their senators that it is the right thing to do. But that's not the case for other senators, who might face the wrath of their voters. Again, Pat Leahy won't pay a political cost for voting for the bill, but Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas probably will. Remember: Lincoln will have to pay an individual cost to help provide this collective benefit. Her chances of reelection in Arkansas are affected, not Pat Leahy's!

Complicating issue number three: the party leadership has very few carrots or sticks to coerce members. Joe Lieberman is a great case in point. He went so far as to endorse John McCain last year, and yet he has retained the gavel in the Homeland Security Committee. That's a sign that in the Senate the party leadership is very weak.


Here is how these three items add up to a potential collective action dilemma. Again, grant that Democrats will enjoy some benefit from an enhanced party reputation if they pass this bill. However, that's just one potential benefit of many, as well as many potential costs. Each senator must evaluate how these potential benefits and costs affect them personally, and then decide how to vote. If just one Democratic senator decides that the costs outweigh the benefits, the bill fails the cloture vote. Remember also: if a senator decides that the costs outweigh the benefits, there is very little that the relatively weak party leadership can do to alter his payoff calculus.

For instance, suppose Ben Nelson agrees that a better reputation for the Democratic party nationally will give him some benefit, but he also believes a yea vote will turn his constituents against him. Thus, he decides that his benefit from the party's reputation can't match the cost he suffers from his own diminished reputation. Harry Reid lacks the ability to alter this evaluation, so Nelson votes nay. Such an outcome would be another example of the the age-old problem of collective action, or how self-interested individuals (like senators) have trouble supporting the goals of a larger group (like a political party).

So far, we've outlined this dilemma in purely political terms: senators calculate their benefits and costs as a function of reelection. But the dilemma persists when we open up the analysis to include policy considerations. In fact, it begins to make even more sense. For instance, consider Bernie Sanders, also of Vermont. His position in the Senate is all but guaranteed, too. This means that he has only small political stakes in this. If he thinks that this bill will produce a policy result that is worse than the status quo - then he'll count that as a major cost. His electoral security means that an enhanced reputation for the party probably cannot overcome it. If it can't, Sanders will vote nay.

This is why the public option is such a big deal. Include the public option and you create a political and policy nightmare for moderate Democrats who do not want to see an expansion of the government's provision of health care. So, their costs start to outweigh the benefits. Remove it and you create a policy nightmare for liberal Democrats who see the result as a payoff to big business. Their costs start to outweigh the benefits. Ditto abortion. The leadership's choice on whether to include or exclude the Stupak language dramatically shifts the payoff calculus for both sides. It's on these massively important issues where the party's reputation starts to become a secondary consideration.

There is little that the party establishment can do besides patiently cajole members to keep searching for that middle ground. Majority Leader Harry Reid simply lacks the power to say to Ben Nelson, "Vote for this or else!" There is no "or else" in the United States Senate. So, his strategy thus far has been to (a) stay optimistic and talk up the progress being made; (b) say nice things about all 60 of his senators; (c) emphasize timelines to keep the players working diligently; (d) continue to negotiate on a piecemeal basis in the hope that this is not a zero-sum game, that making one senator happy does not necessarily aggravate another, and that common ground can ultimately be found.

This is as good a strategy as can be employed when dealing with an institution like the United States Senate. It's as if Harry Reid is trying to herd cats here. It remains to be seen whether he will succeed.

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-Jay Cost

Welcome to the New Gilded Age

After months of deliberation, negotiation, and cogitation - the Democratic wise men of the United States Senate have resolved that the nation needs health care reform so badly, this awful compromised reform bill must be passed.


Let's review the core elements of this compromised product. There are a host of reforms designed to expand the number of people who can acquire health insurance. Because this is supposed to raise premiums, there will be an individual mandate to guarantee that all Americans acquire insurance. This is supposed to lower premiums. But how to coerce Americans to buy health insurance if they don't want to? There are tax penalties. Meanwhile, to help Americans pay for this mandate, the government will be offering subsidies to those who qualify.

What's not in it? A public option or an expansion of Medicare. This means that the United States government will require citizens to contract with private corporations as a condition of citizenship - whether they want to or not. If they don't, the feds will levy a tax on them, the revenues of which will ultimately find their way to the insurance companies.

Let's not forget the process that got us here. All year, the Democrats have talked about some form of public option. Besides the Senate Finance Committee bill - which nobody except Max Baucus really liked - the plan was always to link an individual mandate with some sort of public option. Then, in an instant, simply to win the vote of Joe Lieberman, the Senate leadership drops the public option element. There was no talk about whether what was left was perverse, whether this is a compromise in the worst sense of the word. And now, there is a push to get the bill passed before Christmas, not because that's best for the country - but because the startlingly irresponsible 44th President correctly intuits that health care is pushing his numbers down, and he wants to move on to talk about jobs.

Amazingly, this bill has produced the broadest political coalition I have seen in my lifetime. Peruse the liberal blogs and you'll discover widespread disgust at this corporate boon. Cruise over to the conservative sites, and you'll encounter much the same thing. Then, check out the opinion polls and you'll find a mass public that is staunchly opposed to this bill.

And yet Democrats in the Senate have decided that all of us - left, right, and center - are wrong. We need this bill.

Welcome to the new gilded age. The original hope behind the 17th Amendment - the direct election of senators - was to get the upper chamber out of the pocket of mega-industries that could buy and sell senators. So much for that, I suppose. This has to be one of the biggest giveaways to corporate interests in the nation's history.

Andrew Jackson must be spinning in his grave this evening. The Democratic Party was founded in opposition to "corrupt bargains" among entrenched interests that Democrats believed were undermining the will of the people. Today, such interests are called "stakeholders." They are to be wooed, bought off, and neutralized. Can't afford a K Street lobbyist? Sorry, you're not a stakeholder. Don't like this bill? Eh...you don't know what's good for you. You're either a tea-bagging moron or a gutless liberal who will fold sooner or later.

Like I said, Jackson must be spinning.

I wonder what FDR and LBJ would think of this, too. As we all know, the Democrats plan to cut nearly $500 billion from Medicare to fund this monstrosity. Medicare is a single-payer system for seniors. It's the ultimate "public option," a product of Johnson expanding Roosevelt's social insurance concept to medical care for the elderly. Today's Democrats plan to reduce its revenues by $500 billion to pay for subsidies that will ultimately find their way over to...private insurance companies.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill have talked themselves into the absurd notion that this is better than doing nothing. That kind of myopia is a typical symptom of the Swamp Fever, so I'm not surprised. Still, they had better look out. Above all, they are grossly underestimating the wisdom of the American people, and they are ignoring the power that the Constitution grants them. This is a grave error. When the people catch wind of the full scope of this bill, and they will, there will be hell to pay. The public has been known to vote against big business and big government. Somehow, this compromised bill manages to deliver both - big government and big business, joined together, with the little guy forced to participate.

If the Democrats pass this bill, the Republicans will pound them relentlessly and mercilessly in next year's midterm campaign. All across the country right now, would-be Republican candidates can sense that this is their chance finally to get into Congress. They're already starting to toss their hats into the ring. Many more will follow because they know what the public thinks of this. They know that they'll find plenty of donors to bankroll those ads talking about the individual mandate, the insurance company giveaways funded by Medicare cuts, the victory for special interests, and how it all happened behind closed doors. And they know what kind of effect these ads are going to have.

Democrats were bound to lose seats next year because it is a midterm and they're in charge. They were bound to lose extra seats because it's a recession. But if they pass this bill, God help them. The people sure as hell won't.

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-Jay Cost

Why Does the Public Oppose ObamaCare?

As the Senate debate drags on, public support for the Democratic health care reforms remains very weak. The latest RealClearPolitics average shows just 40% in favor with nearly 49% opposed.

These figures remain a bit puzzling because individual items within the bills still poll strongly. Even if the question wording of the public option tilts the playing field, the fact remains that proposals like guaranteed issue are popular.

How to explain the divergence? Why does the public oppose ObamaCare overall while supporting items within it? Let's approach it by imagining how a (stylized) voter would make up his mind. We'll assume that he is not a strong partisan, and so does not simply accept the rhetoric of one side over the other. This is the sort of middle-of-the-road person who is going to swing a poll such as this one way or another. We'll also assume that this voter is rational. He intends to add up all the expected benefits and the costs. If the sum is positive, the voter supports. If negative, the voter opposes.

First, we must recognize that public knowledge about these bills is very minimal. From the perspective of an average voter, these bills are hopelessly indecipherable. They are so complicated that the experts literally need weeks to figure out what they'll mean for the country. And even then, they cannot give certain answers to the big questions. For instance, many of the Medicare savings in the House bill come from "productivity improvements." Richard Foster, Chief Actuary of Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that these could make it difficult for providers "to remain profitable and end their participation in the program." He suggests that this could "possibly jeopardiz[e] access to care for beneficiaries)." [Emphasis Mine]

Sometimes, the experts offer more confident claims about what these bills will mean, but those clarifications are still terribly complicated. Consider, for instance, the recent scoring from the Congressional Budget Office on how the Senate bill will affect insurance premiums. Question: will premiums go up, down, or stay the same? Answer: yes, yes, and yes! It all depends on where you fit into the scheme. But unless you are a policy wonk, it is extremely difficult to know how it all applies to you.

The impenetrability of these hyper-technical bills is a very important factor for this analysis. It means that voters must weigh their perceived costs and benefits under conditions of severe uncertainty. This point is going to affect every calculation they make.

With this in mind, let's begin the analysis by talking about the potential benefits. The main focus of the bills is expanding coverage to those who lack it. If somebody does not have health insurance, that's a big expected benefit, which should be pretty obvious even with little information. Of course, most people already have health insurance, so they will not enjoy this benefit. Still, they will gain something because the bills make it easier to acquire insurance. Everybody has a non-zero probability of losing coverage in the future, so expanding access to coverage gives everybody at least a little more security.

Another important benefit: insurance premiums are expected to go down for those who buy a policy on the exchanges and who qualify for federal subsidies. For lower income individuals who already have insurance, this is a major benefit.

Yet here the uncertainty kicks in. Some people currently without insurance will still be unable to afford it, and will pay a tax penalty for their lack of coverage. Can average voters evaluate whether they will wind up in this group? Probably not, which means that this has to factor negatively into the analysis. Another item to consider: do average voters know whether they will qualify for a subsidy? If they do not, their premiums could go up. Once again, that's a difficult piece of information to acquire, so this has to enter the equation as potential cost, too.

Uncertainty is a key factor in tallying up the other costs, most notably potential reductions in Medicare benefits, tax increases, and ballooning deficits. If any of these things occur, they would be bad for average voters. But will they actually happen? The Democrats say they won't. The Republicans say they will. That puts moderates, Independents, and soft partisans in a difficult position. Staunch Republicans wholly accept the GOP argument. So, they price in bigger deficits with almost 100% certainty. Staunch Democrats do the opposite. President Obama says no deficits; they say no deficits. But people in the middle without strong partisan affiliations have to acknowledge both arguments. They need to assign each claim a probability of accuracy between 0% and 100%. Thus, GOP warnings about Medicare cuts, tax increases, and out-of-control deficits should thus be priced in as expected costs - perhaps not to the same extent that staunch Republicans are factoring them in, but they are still included.

Another problem for the bills is the Congress. It's heavy involvement has to be acknowledged as a cost, again because of the uncertainty inherent to the bills. RealClearPolitics currently shows congressional job approval at just 27%. That matters for these bills. If voters cannot evaluate the bills for themselves, they have to trust that Congress has written them well. Polls indicate clearly that most people do not trust Congress to do that. If they suspect that the bills are tailored to the special interests rather than their own, they have to factor congressional authorship into the analysis.

The final factor is risk aversion. Recent polling has shown that most people are satisfied with the health care system. Rasmussen recently found that 49% rate it as "good or excellent" while just 27% rate it as "poor." Gallup's numbers are not as positive, but still suggest that most Americans are generally all right with the system as it is.

This might make them especially nervous about the risks inherent to the reforms. If somebody has a 50-50 shot at winning $5,000 or can take $2,500 for certain, what will he do? A risk neutral person will be indifferent between the options. But a risk averse person is acutely uncomfortable with the uncertainty, so will instead take the sure thing. A similar psychological phenomenon might be in place here. If somebody really abhors the uncertainty inherent to a comprehensive overhaul of a system that he thinks is generally all right - he might count it as one of the costs.

Importantly, risk aversion can vary according to the stakes. If somebody has a 50/50 shot at winning $1 million or can take $500,000 for certain, what will he do? A risk neutral person would be indifferent. But most people's risk aversion will make them eager to take the sure thing. People are extremely risk averse when it comes to health care precisely because the stakes are so high. This might make them especially squeamish about the possibility that the bills will have negative side effects.

All in all, this is how I see a rough support/oppose calculation for a middle-of-the-road voter who already has health insurance:

Possible Benefits
(1) Reduction in premiums.
(2) More security in retaining health coverage.

Possible Costs
(1) Increase in premiums.
(2) Medicare cuts.
(3) Tax increases.
(4) Deficit increases.
(5) Congressional particularism.
(6) Intolerable risk.

I think this takes us a long way in explaining the opposition to these bills, even if people support particular items within them. On balance, many people who already have health insurance are going to feel skittish, given the large number of possible costs and their potential severity. They might be all right with provisions that help others acquire insurance - and thus give them a little more security - but their holistic evaluation has to take into account every relevant factor. According to many polls, the bills do badly with Independents and soft partisans, suggesting that this cost-benefit analysis is typically yielding a negative result.

And note that we have not discussed the public option. The more I reflect on it, the more I think it is a red herring - at least as far as public opinion is concerned. It is an issue that has activated the party bases because it signifies a major expansion of social welfare. Americans who are deeply invested in a vision of the proper role of government have focused intensely on it. But what about middle-of-the-road people who do not have such strong feelings? My guess is that it doesn't register nearly as much.

If I'm correct about this, it would mean that the health care debate is perhaps similar to the dynamic laid out by Morris Fiorina in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. Political elites and party activists have focused relentlessly on the public option because it is part of a symbolic battle over the appropriate scope of federal power. Yet the vast, moderate middle is not invested in such symbolism. They don't like the bills because of old standbys like Medicare, taxes, and deficits - not the public option.

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-Jay Cost