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By Jay Cost

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Health Care Reform Has Endangered the Democratic Majority

This Politico piece by Jim VandeHei, Alex Isenstadt, and Mike Allen got a lot of play last week:

Top Democrats are growing markedly more pessimistic about holding the House, privately conceding that the summertime economic and political recovery they were banking on will not likely materialize by Election Day.

In conversations with more than two dozen party insiders, most of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the state of play, Democrats in and out of Washington say they are increasingly alarmed about the economic and polling data they have seen in recent weeks.

They no longer believe the jobs and housing markets will recover -- or that anything resembling the White House's promise of a "recovery summer" is under way. They are even more concerned by indications that House Democrats once considered safe -- such as Rep. Betty Sutton, who occupies an Ohio seat that President Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 -- are in real trouble.

There is no mention of health care reform in this piece. The economy is referenced several times. So is the President's inability to control the narrative. Even the Ground Zero Mosque is mentioned as a reason why the House is now in jeopardy. But not health care.

It has become conventional wisdom that the decline of the Democrats has mostly to do with the economy and little - if anything - to do with health care. This is Jonathan Alter from Saturday:

Health-care reform was seen by many cable chatterers as shaping the outcome of the November midterm elections but almost certainly won't. Nor will the flap over the planned mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero. To make sure, Obama defended the constitutional principle at stake, but backed off on the specific siting. Why get tied down by another hot-button distraction, especially one that keeps the Muslim story alive in ways that help no one but the media? The collapse of the Greek economy, by contrast, is an example of something real, not hyped by cable news, whose reverberations first spoiled Obama's PR plan for a "Recovery Summer" and now could sink the Democrats in the midterms.

So, Greek economy, yes. Health care...no?

This meme is wrong. The Democrats' control of the House did not become tenuous recently. At best, some of the more immediate warning signs - e.g. individual incumbents like Betty Sutton now appear to be in jeopardy - have manifested themselves recently. But there has been a real danger of losing the House for some time, a danger that predates "Recovery Summer" and goes back to the health care debate.

First of all, the fact that the health care bill is no longer the topic du jore does not mean it is no longer an issue. The real questions are whether the health care bill moved voters away from the Democrats, and whether those voters have since moved back now that the debate is over. The answers are yes - the debate moved voters away from the Democrats; and no - the voters have not come back.

Here is the 2009-2010 track of the RCP generic ballot average:

Generic Ballot.jpg

This metric historically has a Democratic tilt, yet it showed the two parties at parity a year ago. That was, you will recall, after Democratic incumbents were excoriated at town hall meetings all summer. Only about 40% of people supported the bill at that point. With the President's late summer speech to Congress, the Democratic generic ballot numbers ticked up, but the GOP pulled back to within even of the Democrats by mid-November, when the House was debating the bill.

All of this happened during the Third and Fourth Quarters of 2009, when GDP finally turned positive then jumped up by 5.0%.

It is very hard to win the House of Representatives when you lose the House popular vote. And the polls have suggested for a year that Democrats were in danger of doing just that.

It is also very hard to win the House of Representatives when Independents bolt to the other side en masse. Republicans and Democrats split Independents in the 2004 House elections. In 2006 they went for the Democrats by 18 points. They went for the Democrats by 8 points in 2008.

In Gallup's most recent polling, President Obama won the approval of just 40% of Independent adults. That's deep in the danger zone, and the President has been in trouble with Independents for some time. Independent adults have given him less than 50% approval in the Gallup poll since November, 2009. Again, that's when the economy was growing and the health care debate was on the front page. And that is among all adults. Among likely voters, Rasmussen found around that time that 60% of Independents disapproved of the President's performance, with 45% strongly disapproving.

We can also point to the 2009 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which occurred during the health care debate. Democrats suffered massive defections among Independent voters, bringing Republicans to victory in both states. Something similar happened in the Massachusetts Senate election. Republicans do not win New England Senate seats by bringing the conservative base out to the polls! Scott Brown is a United States Senator today because Independents in the Bay State were unhappy with the course the national government had been taking.

Partisans on both sides tell themselves stories about why they're up, why they're down, and why the other side is where it is. These stories usually contain at least a grain of truth, but they also help encourage ideologues in the face of an impending rejection by the electorate. Democrats ignored the political problem of health care in the fall and winter - arguing that Martha Coakley and Creigh Deeds were bad candidates, that voters had been turned off by the health care bill because of the process, and that they would come around once the many benefits kicked in. Now, they're pointing to the economy as the only significant reason why the party is in trouble.

It would be difficult for any strong partisan to admit that such an accomplishment was so deeply unpopular. Yet the polling is pretty unequivocal on the relationship between the Democrats' fortunes and the health care bill. It was during the health care debate that the essential building block of the Democratic majority - Independent voters - began to crumble. It was evident in the generic ballot. It was evident in the President's job approval numbers. It was evident in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Reconstructing the Democrats' meme, we can fairly say that the economy is a huge problem for the party. Of this, there can be no doubt. We can also say that the stalled recovery denied the Democrats a chance to win back the voters they lost over health care. But the process and passage of health care reform were crucial elements in the story. That's when the party started losing the voters it needs to retain control of the government.

-Jay Cost

Democrats, Keep the Filibuster!

Ever since the Democrats failed to get the public option through the Senate, liberals have been advocating the effective elimination of the filibuster.

As I have written before, I am deeply opposed to changes in the filibuster. Its use has increased in the last 30 years, sure, but American politics has become much more divisive. We battle over a whole host of economic and cultural issues that did not divide us in the past. As the country has sorted itself into two distinct, roughly equally sized groups, the filibuster has become an important tool to keep a fleeting majority from running the table on a large minority.

But put aside the question of how to maintain ideological balance in a diverse republic, and eliminating the filibuster is still not such a good idea for Democrats. In fact, it's a really bad idea.

Let me explain.

Two relevant changes have occurred in the world of partisan alignments since 1948: the Mountain West returned to the Republican fold after a half century of on-again, off-again flirtation with Populism/Progressivism, and the South converted to Republicanism.

Start with the Mountain West - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In the first half of the century, Democratic populists and progressives carried the party to victory there. William Jennings Bryan swept the region in 1896. Woodrow Wilson won every Mountain West state except Utah in 1912. He went eight-for-eight in the region in 1916. FDR swept it twice, then went seven-for-eight and six-for-eight. Harry Truman swept the region in 1948.

However, the New Deal realignment transformed the Democrats into a primarily urban party, which has meant that subsequent candidates did more poorly in the Mountain West, even when they have won the White House. Kennedy won just two of eight Mountain West states in 1960. Carter won zero. Despite Ross Perot's siphoning Republican-leaners in the region, Clinton won just four Mountain West states in 1992, then three in 1996. Obama also won just three.

Victorious Republicans, meanwhile, have carried the Mountain West with ease. Ike swept it both times. So did Nixon and Reagan. So did George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush lost only New Mexico, by a hair's breadth, in 2000; then he swept the region in 2004. All in all, the Mountain West has a Republican tilt to it. Add to this region its neighbors - Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, all of which have been Republican since they were brought into the Union - and GOP presidential candidates can usually count on something between 9 and 12 states going their way in this part of the country, even when they get shellacked nationwide.

The party also now enjoys a solid haul from the South and Border States. As the Democrats became a party of urban liberals ala Robert Wagner, the South started leaving the party. Franklin Roosevelt was the last Democrat to sweep the old Confederacy. The big change happened in 1972 when Nixon became the first Republican ever to sweep Dixie. Reagan nearly managed that feat in 1980, carrying every state but Georgia. That was a sign of the times: Dixie voted for a Western Republican over a Southern Democrat. In 1996 Bob Dole of Kansas defeated Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 7 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. George W. Bush swept the South twice. And even though he lost the nationwide popular vote by 7.3 points, McCain still held 8 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. A similar trend has occurred in the border states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. All three once leaned Democratic, yet all three voted for John McCain by wide margins in 2008.

Becoming the party of the big cities has been a better than even trade for the Democrats, who now regularly win electoral-rich California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania (all of which used to lean Republican), and New York (which for more than a century was the quintessential swing state). Combined, these five states have 145 Electoral Votes, compared to just 44 in the Mountain West. The Democrats have also managed to stay competitive in "New South" and "New West" states, notably Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. In an even year, these states should all vote Republican - but Democrats have strong bases of support that can flip them in years when their national advantage is large enough.

The net effect of these changes leaves the Democrats in a much stronger position to win the Presidency and the House than they were prior to 1932. On balance, FDR did the party a big favor by moving it from the country into the city. Yet it means the Democratic party is relatively weak in the Senate, which is biased in favor of the small, rural states that now typically go Republican.

We can quantify this in a couple of ways. First, we can look at how many states winning Republican candidates carry versus winning Democrats. George W. Bush won 30 states in 2000 (despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore), then 31 states in 2004. Clinton won 32 states in 1992, but his margin of victory that year was three points larger than Bush's in 2004. Clinton's margin of victory over Dole in 1996 was similar to Reagan's margin over Carter in 1980, yet Clinton won 31 states to Reagan's 44. Obama's popular vote share was similar to George H.W. Bush's in 1988, yet the elder Bush carried 40 states while Obama won 28. Generally speaking, when the GOP wins the presidency, it tends to do so with many more states supporting it than do the Democrats. That points to a GOP advantage for control of the Senate.

Second, we can compare the GOP's nationwide performance against its performance in the median state. In the last 40 years, the Republicans have won the nationwide presidential popular vote by an average margin of 3.5%. Meanwhile, they defeated the Democrats in the median state by an average margin of 6.4%. Here's the breakdown by year:

Keep the Filibuster.jpg

Just to be clear, the "median state" is theoretically the state that has half of the states voting more Democratic, and half voting more Republican. Because there are an even number of states, it is actually the average of the 25th and 26th states, which in 2008 were Ohio and Florida. (In 2004, they were Florida and Missouri.)

In every presidential cycle except 1980, the Republican presidential candidate did better in the median state than he did nationwide. This is because of the GOP dominance in the small states - especially those in the Mountain West and the South, which have moved to the right since World War II.

Call this the Republican small state bias. It has two vital implications for the Senate:

(a) To control the Senate in an evenly balanced year, the Democrats must persuade Republican presidential voters to support Democratic candidates for the Senate. In 2004, Democrats won five Senate seats in states that Bush carried: Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, and North Dakota. On average, the winning Democrat in these states carried 29% of the Bush voters.

(b) As cross-over voting has declined in the last 30 years, (a) has become harder to do. So on average we see a Republican-controlled Senate. Over the last thirty years, the Republicans have gone into the new Congress with a Senate majority 8 1/2 times compared to 6 1/2 times for the Democrats (control of the Senate was split in the 107th Congress).

What this suggests is that the Democrats stand - on balance - to make greater use of the filibuster than do Republicans.

Such use might come sooner rather than later. With the unemployment rate likely to remain high, President Obama should be in for a tough reelection battle in two years. If he loses, expect Congress to go fully Republican. Do Democrats really want to ditch the filibuster now? A full Republican government minus the filibuster would give the Republican Party more power in 2013 than it has had at any point since 1930. Not only would ObamaCare be dug up root-and-branch (on the day the 45th President is sworn in), but the Republicans would surely try to limit the power of crucial Democratic interest groups, above all the labor unions. Without the filibuster, what's to stop them?

Democrats, do yourselves a favor: keep the filibuster. You're gonna need it.

-Jay Cost

ObamaCare is Politically Vulnerable

Liberal commentators are comparing the passage of ObamaCare to other landmark pieces of legislation - like Social Security and Medicare. I agree that in the provision of social welfare, this bill ranks nearly as high. But when you examine how the welfare is provided - it is strikingly inferior. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson made use of an ingenious social insurance system - promoting the idea that we all pay in today to take out tomorrow. It was consistent with American individualism. It was simple. It was intuitive. It was bipartisan.

Obama's new system has none of those virtues. It's an impenetrable labyrinth of new taxes, benefits, and regulations, passed on the narrowest of possible majorities with more than 10% of the Democratic caucus joining every Republican. Even Wile E. Coyote would be embarrassed by its inefficiencies.

Still, the thought among its proponents at the moment is that the legislation, once enacted, cannot be repealed. It will have the benefit of our system's strong "status quo bias." Accordingly, expect yesterday's critics of the filibuster to become its valiant defenders should push come to shove.

The status quo bias is a very real thing, and it makes the Republican efforts to modify or repeal challenging. The GOP must control the entire government by January, 2013 to enact major changes to the legislation. By then, the thinking goes among proponents, those with a personal stake in preserving the legislation will be in place to protect it, just as seniors have been on guard against raids on Social Security.

Yet it's not that simple. The Democrats crammed a $2 trillion bill into a $1 trillion package by delaying the distribution of most benefits for four years, until 2014. This creates two major political vulnerabilities for ObamaCare.

The first is an imbalance between winners and losers through the next two elections. Harold Lasswell defined politics as who gets what, when, and how. By this metric, ObamaCare is bad politics for the foreseeable future. Like any major piece of legislation, this bill assigns winners and losers. The winners will be those who today are uninsured, but who will (eventually) acquire insurance. But there will not be a major reduction in the uninsured until 2014. So, the actual winners are going to be pretty few in number for some time.

Meanwhile, the losers begin to feel the effects immediately. Between now and the next presidential election, ObamaCare is going to pay out virtually zero dollars in benefits, but it will take billions out of Medicare. This is bad for seniors. They have an incentive to oppose portions of this bill (while supporting others, like the closing of the "Doughnut Hole," which Republicans will never repeal). While the Democrats will claim that this reduction in benefits will have no effect on the quality of their care, CBO is much less certain:

Under the legislation, CBO expects that Medicare spending would increase significantly more slowly during the next two decades than it has increased during the past decades (per beneficiary, after adjusting for inflation). It is unclear whether such a reduction in the growth rate of spending could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or through reductions in access to care or the quality of care. (Emphasis mine)

The italicized sentence is an enormous political problem for the Democratic Party. After decades of developing a reputation for defending the interests of senior citizens, the Democrats have put it in serious jeopardy with this legislation. And they've done so right at the moment when demographic shifts are making the senior population more powerful than ever.

Why create such an imbalance between winners and losers? The Democrats are not fools. Why would they do this?

The answer is pretty simple: to hide the true cost of the bill. They don't want to push a $2 trillion program now because this country is facing the greatest deficit crisis it's seen in decades - and such a price tag does not make for good politics these days.

These budgetary gimmicks enabled them to pass the bill, winning over enough self-described "deficit hawks" in the Blue Dog wing of the party to limp to 219 in the House last night. Yet their smoke and mirrors can only mask, not alter the reality, which is this: at a time when the country is facing an enormous deficit problem, the Democrats have created another significant financial obligation for Uncle Sam. This is the second major political vulnerability of ObamaCare.

It's easy to forget these days, seeing as how we've been on a 15-year break from the politics of deficit reduction, just how brutal it tends to be. If you want to know why the parties have become so polarized in the last 30 years, the deficit is a big part of the answer. When Reagan indexed the tax code and stopped runaway inflation, governmental bean counters couldn't depend on bracket creep to solve future imbalances between taxes and spending - and so the lines between the two parties were drawn starkly and clearly.

Deficit reducers always have to choose between two undesirable alternatives: cut spending or raise taxes. The problem with both tactics is that somebody loses while nobody really wins. The benefits of a reduced deficit are diffused across the population and are but weakly felt. Tax increases or spending cuts are felt directly and intensely. Typically, to balance the budget, somebody has to be made worse off tomorrow than they are today.

But not when it comes to ObamaCare, at least not prior to 2014. The benefits could be altered to ease the deficit burden without making anybody worse off tomorrow than they are today. Of course, the beneficiaries of the subsidies would not be as well off tomorrow as they expect to be, but that's different from being made worse off. That could be an important distinction if the politics of deficit reduction are as fiercely zero-sum as they have been in decades past. If it comes down to a choice between a new tax on the middle class or scaling back the unimplemented provisions of ObamaCare, guess what the policymakers in Washington, D.C. will choose.

We're definitely heading toward some kind of hard choice about the deficit. If we weren't, the Democrats wouldn't have employed all those gimmicks to claim that the bill costs less than $1 trillion. They know people are worried about this issue.

Last week, President Obama said again and again that the time for talk is over. Yet this week he's going on the road to defend his new bill. This is why. ObamaCare is politically vulnerable. It lacks the bipartisan support that created and protected new entitlements in decades past. The public does not have confidence in it. Worst of all, it creates an imbalance between winners and losers for four years, and it amounts to a staggeringly expensive new entitlement at a time when the country has to think hard about how to trim its sails.

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-Jay Cost

Stupak Bloc is Critical To Passage

With the recent announcement that Lincoln Davis and John Tanner - both no votes in November - will remain no votes today, it is pretty clear now that the Stupak bloc is critical for passage. The Hill identifies 39 members who have indicated some form of opposition to the bill, and it includes Kathy Dahlkemper as an undecided vote (she's believed to be a Stupak Democrat) for a total of 40 votes. Meanwhile, the number of undecided non-Stupak Democrats is down to just three (by my count): Jim Cooper, Paul Kanjorski, and Loretta Sanchez.

What this means is very simple. If the Democrats win the Stupak bloc, they get passage. If they lose the Stupak bloc, they don't get passage.

MSNBC reported earlier that the leadership had made a deal with Stupak. Though this has been walked back, most reports I've seen suggest that a deal is just about at hand.

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-Jay Cost

Why Was Pelosi Talking to Stupak?

People must have been surprised last night to learn that Nancy Pelosi was talking to Bart Stupak as early as this morning. The talks are apparently off. But still, it's interesting. And it's a puzzle, considering the apparent momentum the leadership had built by flipping members.

But "momentum" is a concept that relates to physical science. When we're talking about politics, we're using it as a metaphor, and sometimes it can be misleading. In this instance, I think it was. If Pelosi was talking to Stupak, it's because her head counts are awfully close.

Here's why.

Let's use The Hill's whip count to count votes. And remember that a perfect re-vote of November would result in a count of 217-214. But we already know that Joseph Cao, the sole Republican to support the bill in November, is going to vote no. That means that the count would be 216-215.

This sets up the follow guidepost: to pass the bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi must match every yes-to-no flip with a no-to-yes flip. So, for instance, if 9 no votes flip to yes but 10 yes votes flip to no - the bill fails 215-216.

With this in mind, let's look at The Hill's count.

I've organized it into several categories. (1) Yes votes who have indicated they could flip to no (excluding Peter DeFazio, who I think will vote yes). (2) No votes who have indicated they'll flip to yes. (3) The remaining no votes who are still undecided at this late hour. (4) The undecided yes votes who might be allied with Stupak. Remember, Pelsoi needs to pull in - at a minimum - the same number of no-to-yes flips as she suffers yes-to-no flips.

Hill Math.jpg

Right now, there are three more yes-to-no votes than there are no-to-yes votes. This means that:

-If all the remaining undecideds vote the way they did in November, the bill will fail.

-If three of the yes-to-undecided votes flip to the no category, the bill will fail even if Pelosi pulls in all the remaining undecided votes.

-If three of those no-to-undecided votes stay a no, the bill will fail even if Pelosi pulls in all the remaining undecided votes.

I believe that this is why Pelosi was dealing with Stupak. She needs the no-to-yes to at least be even with the yes-to-no, and right now she's at -3 (assuming The Hill's count is accurate).

Yet the negotiations are now off. Why? I see three possible explanations:

(a) After initiating the talks with Stupak, she found other votes. Some members whom The Hill currently has as no votes have told her that they can vote yes if she really needs them. Pelosi accordingly re-did her math and realized she doesn't need the Stupak bloc.

(b) The pro-choice caucus made a credible threat that it would vote no if Pelosi caved to Stupak. She factored that into her calculations and discovered that she would lose net votes if she gave Stupak what he wants. So, she broke off the talks with him. She is going to keep hunting for votes among those undecideds, and try to flip a few of those no votes to yes. In other words, she's betting that if she takes it to the floor, she can pull an inside straight.

(c) The pro-choice caucus made a threat that Pelosi can't determine is credible or not. She's holding Stupak off for a little bit to see if the pro-choicers blink. If they do, she'll go back to the table to deal with him.

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-Jay Cost

Will Nancy Pelosi Find the Votes?

The Hill has been keeping a pretty good whip count of the vote. It suggests Nancy Pelosi has a heck of a job on her hand.

Here's how I see things breaking down.

The Hill has 37 Democrats in the "Firm No, Leaning No, Likely No" category. I agree with 36 of these 37 (Update 12 noon: Or, better put, 36 of 37 seem plausible to me). The only objection I have is Luis Gutierrez, and that's not a criticism of The Hill. He says he's a no, which is why he's there. I think he's going to be a yes when push comes to shove.

Then I go down to their list of Undecideds, and I see plenty who could very well wind up as no votes. Here are the top 11.

-Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. Voted no last time. Nobody has gotten more face-time than this publicity hound. He's been publicly fretting to everybody with a tape recorder about the burden of casting such an important vote. Yet he never fails to mention that the views of his constituents will be the deciding concern. His district gave Barack Obama 44% of the vote, and the Republicans have landed a top-tier midterm recruit in Mary Beth Buchanan. I'd point out that he voted against the rule in November. This is typically a party-line vote, and it's a sign that the political implications are very much on his mind.

-John Boccieri of Ohio. Voted no last time. Also voted for the Stupak amendment. Its exclusion could make him tough to get. He didn't show up to Obama's rally yesterday in Ohio.

-Allen Boyd of Florida. Voted no last time. He has a primary opponent, but he also comes from a district that gave John McCain 54% of the vote. In late February, he expressed concerns about reconciliation and passing a bill that lacked public support. Importantly, he also voted against the education bill that is going to be included in the reconciliation package. He voted against the package in the Budget Committee yesterday.

-Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania. Voted yes last time. She is generally seen as a Stupak Democrat. I'd be surprised to see Democrats like Stupak and Lipinski vote against the bill, but Dahlkemper vote in favor. She comes from a pro-life district in northwestern Pennsylvania.

-Brad Ellsworth of Indiana. Voted yes last time. He's running for the Senate in Indiana, and has expressed concerns about abortion. With fellow Hoosier Joe Donnelly upset about abortion, Ellsworth has extra pressure on him.

-Baron Hill of Indiana. Voted yes last time. If Donnelly and Ellsworth vote no, Hill might bolt, too. Charlie Cook currently rates his race a toss-up, and he voted for the Stupak amendment last time.

-Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania. Voted yes last time. He's in a tight race in his Scranton-area district - and the education bill might make the difference. He voted against it last time. Sallie Mae has a big presence in Scranton. He also has a strong pro-life record and voted for the Stupak amendment in November.

-Glenn Nye of Virginia. Voted no last time. The Weekly Standard reports on an item that he sent to his constituents with very negative comments about provisions in the bill. Charlie Cook rates his race a toss-up.

-Tom Perriello of Virginia. Voted yes last time. Jim Geraghty at the Campaign Spot reports that he's making negative comments to constituents about the abortion language in the bill. Charlie Cook rates his race a toss-up. (Update, 2:20 PM: Chris Bowers of Open Left reports a statement from Perriello saying that he is not a Stupak Democrat, but that he has "plenty of serious problems with the Senate bill.")

-Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota. Voted yes last time. Politico reported that he made some very negative comments about both the House and Senate bills a few weeks ago. He voted for the Stupak amendment and faces a very tough reelection challenge.

-John Tanner of Tennessee. Voted no last time. He's retiring, but the last I heard about him was a report in the New York Times that he's not inclined to give the Speaker his vote.

Counting votes is more alchemy than arithmetic, and so I don't want to say something like, "The Speaker is so-and-so votes short." (Update, 2:50 PM Nor am I prepared to put a probability estimate on this. I honestly and truly have no idea what is going to happen.) My conclusion is more modest. I look over the list of people who have indicated disinclination to support the bill, and the list of those who are technically on-the-fence - and I see an enormous challenge.

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-Jay Cost

Bart Stupak Has Problems

Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak has problems.

Big problems.

Here's the situation. He and his bloc of pro-life Democrats want Stupak's pro-life language in the final health care bill. The talk of late is that this might be done by inserting the Stupak language into the reconciliation bill that is currently being negotiated. Here's how this scenario would go down: the House votes for the Senate bill, which does not have the Stupak language; then it votes for the reconciliation "fixer," which does have the Stupak language; then the Senate votes for the reconciliation fixer; in the end, the Stupak language becomes law.

That's a mess.

For starters, Stupak has to hold his anti-abortion coalition through the House. He did this in November - convincing the Speaker that he had enough votes to kill the House health care bill unless he got his pro-life language inserted into it. He has to do this again now.

But then he has an even bigger problem: the Senate.

Senate Republicans want us to believe that they'll move to strike any Stupak language from the reconciliation bill. One of the best Captiol Hill reporters in the business, David Drucker, has the details on GOP bluster:

Republicans, hoping to sow doubts among House Democrats about reconciliation's prospects for passing the Senate, revealed Tuesday they intend to raise procedural objections over any abortion language that shows up in a reconciliation package -- even if it toughens prohibitions against federal funding. Specifically, Republican Senators plan to raise a budget point of order, a procedural move objecting to the reconciliation process that requires 60 votes to defeat.

This is what is known as a non-credible threat. Don't believe this for a minute.

The reason is simple: Senate Republicans will not have an opportunity to kill the main health care bill. By the time the reconciliation bill comes to the floor of the Senate - the main bill that they hate will have passed the House and likely will have become the law of the land (assuming that the Democrats don't find some Rube Goldberg legislative device to make the Senate act on reconciliation first). Thus, Senate Republicans will face the following choice: health care reform with the Stupak language or health care reform without the Stupak language.

That's really no choice at all.

We can represent this graphically with a decision tree:

GOP Non-Credible Threat.jpg

The idea here is that the House goes first. If they fail to pass the main bill and the reconciliation "fixer" bill, health care reform dies. If they pass them, then only the reconciliation bill goes to the Senate. Senate Republicans have no opportunities to attack the main bill. Thus, they are faced with a choice: main bill plus Stupak language or main bill minus Stupak language. A large majority prefer the Stupak language, so they do not raise a Point of Order on this.

Remember, we must always assume that members of Congress only care about process insofar as it affects policy. When faced with a choice between retaining the Stupak language or maintaining the integrity of the Byrd rule (ha!), they'll go for Stupak seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

Importantly, the GOP will raise a Point of Order if and only if it expects that the objection will move the final product closer to the party's preferences. So, if you're a House Democrat who wants a certain liberal provision to get into the reconciliation bill, but you're worried that it might not survive the Byrd rule, you do have reasons to worry. The GOP will probably raise a Point of Order against your provision. But Stupak wants to move the package to the right. The Senate Republicans are not his problem.

The Senate Democrats are.

Steny Hoyer has a negotiating advantage in dealing with the Stupak issue in the House. He can bring the liberals together with Stupak and say, "Look, guys - we all want health care reform. If we don't find common ground, we're not going to get anything!" This is probably why Stupak said he is more optimistic - Hoyer has indicated a recognition of the problem and a willingness to talk with Stupak.


Suppose that the House Democrats agree to put Stupak's language into the reconciliation bill. As I said, the Senate GOP will likely go along with it when it gets to the Upper Chamber - but Senate Democrats likely will not. After all, by the time the reconciliation bill has come up for a vote in the Senate, the main bill will already be the law of the land. Thus, the Hoyer pitch of "We have to find common ground or else there's no bill" will be inoperative. Senate Democrats will thus face this choice: they can have health care with Stupak language or health care without Stupak language.

That's really no choice at all.

Senate Democrats are bound to reject the Stupak language, just like they did in December. Specifically, somebody like Barbara Boxer will raise a Point of Order against the Stupak language to get it stricken from the reconciliation bill. The parliamentarian will presumably advise that the objection is valid - and 60 votes will be required to overturn the ruling to strike it. A majority of Senators will probably vote to overturn it - just as a majority voted for Stupak language in December - but it will fall short of the needed 60 vote supermajority. (Side prediction: the liberals who have been huffing and puffing about the supermajority requirements in the Senate will not be terribly upset by this.)

Graphically, the decision tree looks like this:

Dems Empty Promise 2.jpg

This is Stupak's real problem. Lots of Democratic House members have expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of the Senate. Stupak has the most reasons to worry.

I think the only solution for Stupak is somehow to find a way for the Senate to act first on abortion. This is the most important point: when Stupak and his bloc cast their votes in the House, their leverage is completely gone. That's the only power they have in the process. If they are induced to go first, they will lose to the Senate liberals.

Follow me now on Twitter, and be sure to check out my health care whip count, updated as new information comes in.

-Jay Cost

It's Time for Moderate House Democrats to Stand Up to Obama

According to Gallup, Barack Obama entered the presidency with a net approval rating (i.e. percent approve minus percent disapprove) of 56%. This past weekend, he was at just +1%. No newly elected President has fallen so far so fast since polling began. Only Bill Clinton - in his difficult first year in office - came close.

Some pundits have an overly-reductionist take on Obama's fast-declining numbers, arguing that the precipitous drop is entirely due to the stagnant economy. They like to draw a comparison to Ronald Reagan, whose numbers fell quickly as he dealt with a recession early in his term. No doubt some of Obama's decline is related to the recession, but the 44th President - unlike the 40th - was elected when the economy was already contracting. This gives Obama political cover that Reagan did not have. Just 7% of Americans, according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, blame Obama for the recession.

If it's more than the economy, what else is it? Health care is a strong contender. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day of last year, Obama's net job approval rating in the RCP average declined by 63%. This was the period when House Democrats were beginning to divide openly over their reform proposals, and when the town hall protests started. As the debate has dragged on, his net approval has inched closer and closer to zero. Today, the country is essentially split in half over his tenure.

That split is not random. It breaks down along the typical cleavages. Obama is strong in the East; weak in the South. Young people like him; seniors do not. Democrats stand with him; Republicans and Independents don't. Blacks approve; whites do not. Single people support him; married people don't.

Yet the Democratic Party controls Congress today because in the last two election cycles it healed these divisions, at least partially. In 2008, House Democrats split the South. They won voters young and old. They won Independents. They held their own with whites. They split married voters. This is why they have a majority in the 110th House of Representatives.

If the current trends in public opinion continue, they will lose that majority because of President Obama's divisiveness. We have seen hints of things to come with GOP victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and most recently Massachusetts - as the difference-making voters for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 turned to the Grand Old Party.

Either Mr. Obama and his advisors are blind to this, or they don't care, or both. I think it's both; call it willful blindness, a self-serving belief that 2008 was indeed a liberal realignment, and that the numbers will eventually reflect it. Regardless, House Democrats should know that the voters who have made them a majority party in recent cycles strongly oppose this health care bill; they have turned against President Obama; and they will eventually turn against them if they go along with the President. Moderates from the South and Midwest will be the first to go down to defeat as the party shrinks from a majority to a minority.

Yet such crassly selfish political considerations are not at the core of the debate moderate Democrats should be having. The real question is this: what is the Democratic Party all about? As I have argued before, the substance of this bill - with a mandate enforced by the Internal Revenue Service that all citizens buy a product from a private company as part of the terms of public citizenship - is antithetical to the historical spirit of the party.

But it's not just the substance. It's the process. The ever-obliging mainstream media have helpfully reduced the appropriateness of reconciliation to a merely legislative question, thus obscuring the bigger political reality: the Democrats must use reconciliation to pass health care because they no longer have a filibuster-proof majority; they no longer have a filibuster-proof majority in part because of health care. Their chosen strategy may pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, but it suggests a blatant disregard for public opinion.

This is par for the course for the 44th President, who has made pretty clear his belief that, when he and the people disagree, the people must be in error. Democratic primary voters in small town Pennsylvania opposed him not because he was inexperienced, you see, but because their bitterness made them provincial. Now, Americans who don't support this bill simply don't understand it. They'll see things better after the Congress passes it.

Such arrogance makes for bad politics because it's un-democratic. Yet it's also un-Democratic. It's not unreasonable to expect the party of the people to respect the judgment of the people, especially on an issue that is so important and that has attracted so much attention. The public is as well informed about the health care debate as they ever are about anything. One would hope that the Democratic Party would acknowledge and respect this fact.

Progressives at liberal opinion journals and in the D.C. press corps have had trouble with this idea - and have ironically taken to employing fallacies of composition to suggest that public opposition is irrational. The people like the various elements of the bill, so the fact that they dislike the whole thing is a sign that they're not thinking clearly. If this argument was valid - if the whole was merely the sum of its parts - the Washington Redskins, an organization that likes to lure the best players from other teams rather than build from the ground up, would stand at the top of the National Football League.

The Democratic Party is broader than its progressive intellectuals and media cheerleaders. It has the majority not just because of San Francisco, California - but also Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Zanesville, Ohio. Those places voted Democratic in the 2008 House elections. Some progressives, especially in the blogosphere, see that as a problem - the "ConservaDems" they elect hold up true progress. But it's historically the greatest strength of the Democratic Party, whose appeal has long been much broader than the GOP's.

House Democrats should bear this in mind as they consider the current reforms. This bill would signal not just a major change in health care, but also in the Democratic Party itself. The end result will be a smaller, more narrowly liberal party that is less trusted by the mass public to respect its collective judgment. The party will keep San Francisco and The New Republic, but sooner or later they'll lose Murfreesboro and Zanesville.

Mr. Obama has indicated that he is all right with this. But in our system of separated powers, his opinion is insufficient. Ultimately, the decision rests with Southern and Midwestern House Democrats. They must make the final choice. They can vote with the President on a bill whose substance and process reflect little of the grandest traditions of the Democratic Party. Or they can stand up to him, and tell him that they have had enough of his condescending attitude and strong-arm tactics.

What moderate House Democrats should not do is assume that, if they vote with him on this one, President Obama will stop here. This President talked during the campaign about building a broad consensus for change. Yet when push comes to shove, he cares much more about change than consensus. He plans to tackle immigration reform, and there's no doubt he's still eyeing cap-and-trade. He has promised the Congressional Progressive Caucus that they can revisit health care later. If their constituents ultimately disapprove, moderate House Democrats shouldn't expect Barack Obama to give a damn. That's not his style. He likes to give lip service to consensus - but when you read the fine print, he inevitably defines any divergent viewpoints as out-of-bounds. He did it on the stimulus. He's doing it on health care. If moderate House Democrats don't stand up to him now, he'll do it on cap-and-trade, immigration reform, and who knows what else. Sooner or later, their constituents will elect representatives who will stand up to the President.

And those new representatives will probably be Republicans.

Follow me now on Twitter, and be sure to check out my health care whip count, updated as new information comes in.

-Jay Cost

Counting the Heads of House Democrats / Updated 3-14

I'm no longer updating this page, as I think it is redundant now that The Hill's whip count is in full swing. I'll still be posting new info on Twitter as I find it.

Remember, check back in for updates as I find them. If you have news that I haven't covered, send it my way! Also, you can follow me on Twitter for updates.

Current Categories (As of 8:10 PM 3/14)
     Democrats Who Voted Nay in November
          Very Hard to Persuade: 27
          Hard to Persuade: 4
          Persuadable: 6
     Democrats Who Voted Yea in November
          Suggested Might Now Vote Nay (Including Confirmed Stupak Democrats): 21
          Other Possible Stupak Democrats: 6

I explain below why I'm not doing a yea-and-nay count, akin to what the Hill is currently compiling. Those original comments are buried under a week's worth of updates, so I'll repost here:

I'm compiling an alternative count that is based upon public statements and a few key factors, placing members into several categories - all of which allow for the possibility of a nay-to-yea flip. Even if a member comes out and says no, he/she might still change his/her mind. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky did exactly that in 1993 on the Clinton budget vote.

My categories are meant to be soft. The lines between them get pretty blurry at the margins. This is really more of a working list I'm compiling for myself, which I've decided to share because of all the spin and faulty information out there.

Believe me, I'd like to do a firmer count than the above categories. I just don't think one is possible, at least not from the vantage point of an outside observer relying on media reports.


Update 8:10 PM 3/14 Earlier in the week, I noted that Steve Dreihaus (OH-1), long rumored to be one of Stupak's dozen, had an ambiguously-worded statement on his website indicating his opposition to abortion funding in the health care bill. An interview with Driehaus by the Cincinnati Inquirer is much less ambiguous:

Driehaus did vote in favor of the health care bill that cleared the House last year, saying he was proud to stand with his colleagues to support health care reform and calling the vote "historic."

But the bill that could come before the House for a vote this month is a different version. Some say the Senate-passed measure does not contain enough restrictions on using federal money for abortions.

For Driehaus, who is Catholic, that's a deal breaker.

"While I certainly support this initiative ... I will not bend on the principle of federal funding on abortion," Driehaus said in an interview with The Enquirer. "They are going to have to do it without me and without the other pro-life Democrats."

As always, there is wiggle room here - but this is a pretty tough statement. I'm going to add him to my list of Democrats who had supported the bill in November, but who have since suggested they might defect.

Update 7:05 PM 3/14 Jerry Costello (IL-12) has long been rumored to be a Stupak Democrat. Today, in an interview published by the Alton, IL Telegraph, he indicates he's opposed to the bill in its current form:

With the proposed health care reform up for a vote this week, U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville) said he is unsure of what the outcome will be.

"As of today, it looks like the process that will be followed will be that the speaker intends to have us vote on the Senate-passed bill and then a separate bill with corrections to the Senate bill," he said. "I'm opposed to the Senate bill in its current form."

His concerns with voting for the Senate bill are that it would allow public funding for abortions, that the congressional budget office has yet to determine the cost of the bill, and that partially funding the bill by slowing the growth of Medicare by $500 billion would adversely affect senior citizens.

"I don't like the process at all - I think the White House and the leadership has bungled this from the start," he said. "It's so complicated that the American people are fearful of what's in the bill - this is a very complex issue that affects every man, woman and child, and it's so complex that it scares people."

While the vast majority of calls, e-mails and letters Costello has received are opposed to the bill, he said that not one person has said nothing needs to be done.

Instead, Costello believes legislation should be passed that addresses three or four key issues that would garner bipartisan support, such as allowing coverage for pre-existing conditions, revoking insurance companies' anti-trust exemption to allow greater competition in the industry to bring down rates, extending insurance coverage for dependents until age 26 and establishing community health care clinics for the uninsured to have access to preventive health care.

He doesn't shut the door all the way. He says, "I have stated that I will not vote for the Senate bill in its current form...If that changes between now and the time we vote on it, then I will have to reconsider, but in its current form I will vote against it." Still, his list of grievances go beyond the reports of the purported House-Senate compromise - including Medicare cuts, abortion, a lack of bipartisanship, and public disapproval. He leaves himself an out, but not much of one.

Accordingly, I've added him to my list of Democrats who voted yea in November, but who have now said something negative about the bill.

Update 10:15 PM 3/13 I'm adding Rick Boucher (VA-9) to my list of members who voted nay who are now "Very Hard to Persuade," based on this local news report:

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said Friday he could not support health care reform legislation that includes heavy cuts to Medicare, a position he has held since his first vote against the package and his party's move to push legislation through Congress.

Boucher said he needs to see whatever deal is being cobbled together.

"I am very concerned about a number of things. First, we do not have a text of the legislation before us. That is still being discussed and negotiated. Obviously, I will withhold any judgment until I review it very carefully. I do have concerns about a number of matters I anticipate being in the draft, however," he said.

Boucher said he is hearing that cuts to Medicare funding to help pay for the reform package "may be as great as $500 billion. That's 'billion' with a 'B.'"

A funding cut of that significance would jeopardize the financial health of hospitals and physicians in Southwest Virginia, he said.

"I am persuaded that Medicare cuts at that level would impair the delivery of health care within our region. We have a large population that receives Medicare. It is the principal source of income for our nonprofit hospitals and virtually all the hospitals in my district," Boucher said.

"Also, so many of our doctors receive a significant part of their income from Medicare as well. So from the vantage point of our senior citizens and the vantage point of hospitals and doctors who deliver health care, these levels of Medicare funding reductions that I anticipate being in the measure are simply not acceptable, and that fact will weigh heavily in my perception of the legislation when I have the opportunity to review it."

If reform advocates want to know why their poll numbers remain well under water, one need look no further than comments like this. This is a Democrat talking about how the bill will cut Medicare too much. For nearly a year, we have seen precisely this. It hasn't been Democrats versus Republicans. It's been Democrats versus Republicans and Moderate Democrats.

At any rate, Boucher was on my list of "Hard to Persuade," and I was very skeptical he would every go along with the reform efforts. He voted for cap-and-trade last year - a high-risk vote considering his district. That ultimately drew a top-tier challenger in Morgan Griffith, the Majority Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates. Boucher needs to put distance between himself and the President. These comments are a strong indication that he plans to use next week's vote to do precisely that.

Update, 11:00 PM 3/12 CNN reports that Heath Shuler will vote nay. I already had him in my "Very Hard To Persuade" category, based upon comments he made to a local news outlet that expressed reservations about using reconciliation. I have updated the link.

Update, 12:01 PM 3/12 Moving Ben Chandler (KY-6) from the "Hard to Persuade" category to the "Very Hard to Persuade" category, based on this report from Greg Sargent:

Dem Rep Ben Chandler of Kentucky, a prominent Blue Dog who voted No last time but has since been undecided, will vote against the Senate bill.

"Congressman Chandler's position on the bill remains the same," Chandler spokesperson Jennifer Krimm tells our reporter Ryan Derousseau. "He expects to vote against the legislation."

John McCain performed very well in Chandler's Kentucky district, which includes Lexington. I'm not surprised by this bit of news. Chandler was always going to be a tough get for the leadership.

Update, 7:15 PM 3/11: More bad news for reform advocates. Henry Cuellar (TX-27) appears to be a Stupak Democrat, according to Investor's Business Daily:

"I want to make sure that the Henry Hyde amendment that federal funds not being used for abortion is adhered to," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who says he's a Stupak supporter.

I had Cuellar on my list of Democrats who had voted yes but who had since signaled they might not stay on board. I had also suspected that he might be a Stupak Democrat, but the public documentation I had did not suggest that. The previous report emphasized his concerns about the bill's impact on rural people. The comments from Cuellar today are much stronger and more pointed, even though it doesn't change the overall counts. I'll update the documentation below with this new piece of data.

That IBD report also has harsh comments from Marion Berry (AR-1). He voted for the bill in November, and he had already signaled that he was part of the Stupak bloc, but today he had some very negative things to say about the bill:

"The way it treats Medicare is not fair to states like mine...And it treats pharmacists like the trash of health care providers."

Ouch. Like I said, bad day for reform advocates.

Update, 7 PM 3/11: The Hill reports the following about Luis Gutierrez (IL-4):

The healthcare bill's immigration provisions are enough to spur Hispanic members of Congress to vote against it, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Thursday.

Gutierrez, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) in which he serves as chairman of its Immigration Task Force, said the caucus still has concerns over the extent to which the healthcare bill excludes illegal immigrants as well as legal residents from receiving benefits in the healthcare plan.

"They are enough to say I can't support this bill," Gutierrez said during an appearance on MSNBC."

As I mentioned earlier in the day, I've decided not to include on this count liberal members whose objections come from the left. I think two points of amplification are appropriate to make:

(a) When push comes to shove, will Gutierrez choose to vote down a bill that insures 30 million additional people? I'm skeptical.

(b) Gutierrez comes from a one-party district, meaning that there's nobody to run attack ads on him for saying negative things about the bill that he ultimately votes for. This distinguishes him from a guy like Heath Shuler, who has made negative comments about using reconciliation. Shuler is somewhat locked in now - at the least, he can expect that if he supports a reconciliation process, his opponents will attack him. Gutierrez does not have that kind of worry (neither does Capuano), which in turn makes me suspect that he and Capuano might be trying to bargain.

Nevertheless, to have liberals like Gutierrez and Capuano talking negatively about the bill is a bad sign for the Democratic leadership as they try to push this through. If Gutierrez and Capuano are articulating a common sentiment among the progressive and minority factions in the caucus, that is really not a good thing.

All in all, today seemed like a bad news day for reform advocates. You have comments from Gutierrez and Capuano. You have the suggestion from Chairman Waxman that they're abandoning an attempt to strike a deal with Stupak. You have the decision of the Senate parliamentarian that the Senate bill has to become law. A rough day. The silver lining for reform advocates was that Vic Snyder (AR-2) has signaled that he is still on boar. Snyder voted for the bill in November. He is also retiring, so the leadership really has no excuse not to get him. But still, a bright spot on a cloudy day for reform proponents.

Update, 3:45 PM 3/11: Talking Points Memo reports that Michael Capuano (MA-8) has serious reservations about the Senate bill. They quote in full the text of a letter he sent to his constituents. It is highly critical. Still, I'm not prepared to put him on this list because of my skepticism about defections from the left. When push comes to shove, I think members like Capuano will vote with the President rather than kill the bill.

Even if it doesn't merit inclusion in the count, this news is not insignificant. If the left wing of the House caucus is lukewarm (at best) about this bill, and the middle/right of the caucus is nervous about the political implications - the Speaker has an even tougher time getting to 216. I firmly believe that Capuano will be there if she has 215 votes and needs one more, but comments like his prevent her from getting even that close.

Update, 3:30 PM 3/11: Adding Tim Bishop (NY-1) and Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided, thanks to this report from CNN:

CNN also contacted a number of House Democrats who voted in favor of the November House bill and who also represent conservative or competitive districts.

Of those, Reps. Michael Arcuri of New York, Marion Berry of Arkansas, Tim Bishop of New York, Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois and Bart Stupak of Michigan said they would vote against the Senate bill as written but said they would consider supporting it with significant changes.

Also, to reitierate, to get on this list of former yes votes who are now reconsidering, it is insufficient just to say something like, "I'm going to wait and see." These members have to express that they have substantive concerns that go beyond things like the Cornhusker Kickback. With CNN saying that Bishop and Giffords need "significant changes" and with it placing these two with others who are already on my list, in my judgment it is sufficent to add their names.

Update, 1:10 PM 3/11: Several readers have passed on this report about the Congressional Hispanic Caucus potentially voting no. I'm highly skeptical about defections from the left on this. I put Raul Grivalja in my count of previous yes votes who might flip to no - and then a day later he walked back his criticism. I think that - at the end of the day - there will be very few defections from the left. Possibly, even probably, just Dennis Kucinich. I think the rest of the liberal members will look at the final product and think that while it has warts, it covers 31 million people, and that makes it worth voting for. I'd note with interest that some 60 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote a letter indicating in no uncertain terms that a lack of a public option is a deal-breaker - but, as we all know, it wasn't.

Update, 12:50 PM 3/11: The Hill reports that Mike McIntyre has confirmed to them that he is a no. I had him in my "Very Hard to Persuade" category because of his strong pro-life voting record. I'm updating the notation to reflect this statement.

The Hill's whip count differs from mine in several aspects, although at this point we both have 25 Democrats in our most negative category. Here are the differences.

-I have Jason Altmire (PA-4) in my "Very Hard to Persuade" category. They have him in their "Undecided" category. Altmire has been all over the map in the last few weeks - and I've noticed that he is maximizing his "face time," something that does not surprise me. He's a tough vote to categorize - but I'm keeping him in my "Very Hard to Persuade" category. He voted against the rule for debate on the House bill in November, which suggests that political positioning is a top concern of his. His district gave McCain 54% of the vote, so political positioning would predict a nay vote.

-They have John Adler in their "Firm No, Leaning No, Likely No" category, based upon his comments on Fox News Sunday. I have him in my "Persuadable" category.

-I have Allen Boyd (FL-2) in my "Very Hard to Persuade" category, based upon his criticism of using reconciliation to pass the bill, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. They him in their "Undecided" category.

-They have Jim Matheson (UT-2) in their "Firm No, Leaning No, LIkely No" category. I have him in my "Hard to Persuade" category.

-I have Heath Shuler (NC-11) in my "Very Hard to Persuade" category based upon his negative comments about the use of reconciliation to a local newspaper. They have him in their "Undecided" category.

-They have Harry Teague (NM-2) in their "Firm No, Leaning No, LIkely No" category. I have him in my "Hard to Persuade" category.

There is a lot of overlap here. And I can appreciate why The Hill has categorized these members differently than I have. I encourage you to book make their whip count, as well as the one my former colleague Reid Wilson is working on over at Hotline On Call. The inherent uncertainty of this project - and the inevitability of judgment calls on the part of the analyst - makes it most helpful for the readers to have multiple analyses close at hand.

Update, 12:07 PM 3/11 Tim Holden (PA-17) confirms that he is a no to a local newspaper:

"I will not vote for the Senate bill," Holden said. "It makes significant cuts to Medicare and Medicaid ... and the restrictions on (federal funding for) abortion are not as strong."

I already had Holden in my "Very Hard to Persuade" category because of his strong pro-life voting record. I'm updating the notation to reflect this statement.

Update, 6:15 PM 3/10 Steve Driehaus (OH-1) has put up the following statement on his website:

Last fall, I worked to pass legislation to bring needed changes to our health care system, while putting in place strict prohibitions on the use of taxpayer funding for abortion. The House will soon take up this issue again. When there is a final piece of legislation, I will take the time needed to review the bill and determine how I will vote. However, my overall position is unchanged. Health care reform is critically important for our nation, and I support efforts to enact changes to our system - if those changes are done the right way. But I'm firm in my commitment that I won't support legislation that provides federal funding for abortion.

I cannot determine whether this means that Driehaus believes the Nelson language in the Senate bill "provides (for) federal funding for abortion." I have made an inquiry with his office, and when I hear something definitive, I will update accordingly. Until then, I am not going to make any changes to this list.

Update, 11:45 AM 3/10 Adding Joe Donnelly (IN-2) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided, thanks to this report:

Joe Donnelly would prefer voting on health care reform one piece at a time.

Donnelly, the Granger Democrat who represents Fulton County in the U.S. Congress, points to the demise of an insurance industry anti-trust exemption. It was recently flushed by a 409-16 vote. "That's in the big (Senate health care reform) bill," he said. "But being part of the big bill, it's hard to get things done. When they stand alone, you can actually get things accomplished," Donnelly said...

Donnelly likes a lot about the bill, but its language on abortion is a "fatal flaw." For him, it is a deal breaker. "I would not vote for it," he said. He figures there will be a vote within a month or so. The abortion language is unpopular with "a significant" number of congressmen. It has the potential to kill the bill, he said.

Donnelly appears to be a Stupak Democrat.

Thanks to reader Ted for the tip!

Update, 12:45 AM 3/10 Taking Dale Kildee off the list of potential Stupak Democrats because of these comments.

Update, 5:50 PM 3/9 Courtesy of FireDogLake, Jerry McNerney (CA-11) walks back about 90% of the impression left in that report from Morgan Hill Times.

McNerney certainly has concerns with the Senate proposal, in particular the backroom deals that favored some states over others, and the level of coverage (31 million, down from 36 million in the Senate bill). But McNerney wants to see some fixes, and will hold for language before making a full appraisal of how to vote. When told that the reconciliation fixes under consideration included an elimination of those backroom deals, Hersh said that such changes "would certainly go a long way" toward making the Congressman more comfortable voting for passage. She expected to see "a number of corrections made" in the press about where McNerney stands.

It's a judgment call, to be sure, but I'm taking him off the list.

Update, 1:40 PM 3/9 Adding Jerry McNerney (CA-11) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided, thanks to this report:

McNerney criticized the current version of healthcare reform passed by the U.S. Senate for the deals it makes with certain states, its lack of a public option and the inadequate number of people it extends coverage to. He said he would not vote in favor of that version of the bill if it comes back to the House.

"We want to get our healthcare up to international standards, and we want to do it in a way that is American," McNerney said in response to a question from the audience. "Costs are escalating at a rate that's unacceptable, and the people want something done."

Thanks to Twitter follower "sulzinator" for the link!

Also, a note on methodology. My rule for adding former yea voters to the list of waverers has had to become a little more developed since I first published this list. My attitude is that it is not enough for a member to say that he/she is now "undecided." I need to read about them making a negative about the Senate bill. This is why, for instance, some journalists have John Spratt as "undecided" but he is not on my list because I have not heard a specific complaint from him about the Senate bill.

Additionally, I'm operating under the assumption that the special carve-outs like the Cornhusker Kickback are getting dropped in the final package, so if a member just complains about the insider deals, he/she won't get on the list.

In McNerney's case, he has said negative things about the Cornhusker Kickback. But that's not enough for me. McNerney also bemoaned the lack of a public option and insufficient coverage. Combine that with his statement that he won't vote for the Senate bill, and that's enough to put him on my list.

Update, 1:30 AM 3/9 Adding Steve Kagen (WI-8) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided, thanks to this report:

(Fox News 11) asked the Congressmen from Northeast Wisconsin about voting on the Senate bill...

"Let me put it this way: you're asking whether or not I trust the United States Senate, where they came up with a deal for Nebraska that the other states didn't get; where Louisiana would get a special deal. No, I don't trust the U.S. Senate," said Rep. Steve Kagen (D-8th District). "So I think I'd like to have a vote on something very meaningful."

Kagen said the health care bill should be split up into smaller bills.

"I have made the case to the speaker and also to the White House that we should take small pieces, small bites," Kagen said. "In the practice of medicine, I can't give a child a big pill. What do we do? We cut it up into pieces. Let's find things we can agree on."

Update, 6 PM 3/8 Adding Dan Maffei (NY-25) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided, thanks to this report, in which Maffei says, "The Senate bill, in my view, burns the village in order to save it. I will say, however, the president's direct involvement gives me hope they will come up with a compromise."

Update, 5:30 PM 3/8 Adding Henry Cuellar (TX-28) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided, thanks to this report. Also, Kathy Dahlkemper was on the list of suspected Stupak Democrats. Her representative confirms that the Senate abortion language is unacceptable, "period." Thus, I move her to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November but who are now undecided.

Update, 12:15 PM 3/8: Moved Dan Lipinski (IL-3) to the category of Democrats who voted yea in November who have now explicitly said something negative about the current legislation. The Weekly Standard reports:

Asked if the congressman is "open to voting for a health care bill that lacks the Stupak amendment," Lipinski's spokesman Nathaniel Zimmer replied in an email to THE WEEKLY STANDARD: "No. Congressman Lipinski will not vote for a health care bill that provides federal funding for abortion."

Lipinski was included on my list of potential Stupak Democrats. Now that he has "outed" himself as such, he goes into the list of Democratic supporters from November who are now wavering.

Update, 4:45 PM 3/6: A lot of readers have asked me for a head count on the vote. Unfortunately, I'm unable to give one at this point. Everything is just too fuzzy, and I generally like to put stuff up on the blog that I have a high degree of confidence in. For what it's worth, I don't see anything less than 35 defections from Democrats on this bill - including a very large majority of those who had voted nay in November. That doesn't say very much, I know, but it's the best I can do right now. Again, the lesson of Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky is that the only head count that we can have confidence in is the final roll call vote!

In the meantime, a major objective of this list is to clarify what I think are confusing and even inaccurate reports out there. I got tired of seeing so many journalists talk about the "39 Democrats," turning answers that are clearly punts (e.g. "I want to look at the bill") into claims of being "undecided," selectively emphasizing those nay voters who want to look at the bill over the yea voters who have major problems, and just plain ignoring local news reports.

Another objective is just to compile and collate information into reliable categories. Data is scattered all over the place - and I've trained Google Reader onto collecting as much of it as I can. I'll put the good news items up here. I like the categories I've put together. They seem reasonable enough. So, I'll continue to shift members between these categories as new information comes in.

Update, 2:45 PM 3/7: After the Sunday shows, I've decided to make no changes in any of my ratings. Jason Altmire said some positive things about the bill on Fox News Sunday, but he also brought up abortion, the Senate's willingness to deal in good faith, and the importance of public opinion in his (Republican-leaning) district. Those are all in the negative. Altmire's comments to the New York Times last week were much more direct, and directly negative. Generally, Altmire has a long track record of inserting himself into national news stores that deal with process rather than the issues directly affect his district. (Those of us who live in Western PA who pay attention to this kind of stuff find his media...umm..."savviness" kind of funny!) My hunch is that he wants to be in the game, but that he will ultimately be a nay because he wants to stay in Congress. After all, he voted against the House bill in Energy and Commerce, and then he voted against the rule on debate for the House bill. This is a member who is concerned about politics, and more specifically about building a solid record of opposition. I'm keeping him in the "Hard to Persuade" category - his vote against the rule in November remains the tipoff to me that he's playing political games. It's a judgment call, for sure, and that's why I'm spelling it out here.

Update, 3:30 PM 3/6: A recent report suggested that Raul Grijalva - co-chair of the progressive caucus - is leaning back toward supporting the bill. I have him on my list of fence-sitters who had previously voted nay. I'll keep him on for now, but he looks like a gettable vote if the final margin is close. Thanks to reader Michael for the tip!

Update, 2:30 AM 3/6: I am adding Baron Hill (IN-9) and Marion Berry (AR-1) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November, but who are now reconsidering. Berry appears to be a Stupak Democrat. (Thanks to readers Darrin and Robert for sending in the links!) Also, I am moving Mike Ross (AR-4) from "Hard to Persuade" to "Very Hard To Persuade."

Update, 12 AM 3/6: Adding Dina Titus (NV-3) to the list of Democrats who voted yea in November, but who are now reconsidering.

Update, 4 PM 3/5: Eric Massa's planned resignation takes him off the list. There are now 37 Democrats who voted nay in November who will be Democrats when (if?) the next vote occurs. With the House vacancies being what they are now, Speaker Pelosi will need 216 votes to pass the bill.


There has been a lot of talk about the 38 House Democrats who voted against health care reform in November. There have been suggestions that some are about to flip, fueled in no small part by this piece from the AP:

In interviews with the AP, at least nine of the 39 Democrats -- or their spokesmen -- either declined to state their positions or said they were undecided about the revised legislation, making them likely targets for intense wooing by Pelosi and Obama.

I agree with Jane Hamsher: this is a non-story. For starters, we have to correct a basic factual error, one I have seen repeated again and again by authors who should know better: there are not 39 Democrats who voted against the bill in November. There are 38. There were 39, until Parker Griffith switched to the GOP. So, AP meant to say that 9 of 38 are either undecided or "declined to state" their position. Yet since this article was published, Frank Kratovil has since clarified his position; what's more, Michael McMahon had previously indicated that he was against the bill. So, let's call it 7/38, not 9/39. Update, 4 PM 3/5: With Massa's resignation, call it 7/37.

Is this a big deal? I don't think so. How many members should we expect to take a hard-and-fast stand on a bill that has not yet been finalized? If I were a Democratic legislator - I would say something like what (at least a few of) these members said: "I believe in quality, affordable health care for all. When there is a final package, I will read it and make a decision." Otherwise, I would look awfully prejudiced. The more interesting story, in my judgment, is that several have said they were already decided against the bill.

I'm compiling an alternative count that is based upon public statements and a few key factors, placing members into several categories - all of which allow for the possibility of a nay-to-yea flip. Even if a member comes out and says no, he/she might still change his/her mind. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky did exactly that in 1993 on the Clinton budget vote.

My categories are meant to be soft. The lines between them get pretty blurry at the margins. This is really more of a working list I'm compiling for myself, which I've decided to share because of all the spin and faulty information out there.

The first group I label, "Very Hard to Persuade," i.e. it will be no little feat to bring that member from a nay to a yea. I put a member in there if:

(1) The member has communicated something negative about the Senate bill, or the pending House-Senate compromise.

(2) The member comes from a district where John McCain won 60% or more of the vote, and is running for reelection.

(3) The member has a lifetime National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) score greater than 80%.

Several of these members possess more than one of these qualities. I listed the above qualities in what I think their order of salience is. A member's most salient quality is the one I've listed next to his name below.

I count 27 in this group:

1. Jason Altmire (PA-4) (communication)
2. John Barrow (GA-12) (communication)
3. Dan Boren (OK-2) (communication)
4. Rick Boucher (VA-9) (communication)
5. Allen Boyd (FL-2) (communication)
6. Bobby Bright (AL-2) (communication)
7. Ben Chandler (KY-6) (communication)
8. Travis Childers (MS-1) (McCain won 62%)
9. Artur Davis (AL-7) (communication)
10. Lincoln Davis (TN-4) (McCain won 64%)
11. Chet Edwards (TX-17) (communication)
12. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL) (communication)
13. Tim Holden (PA-17) (communication)
14. Larry Kissell (NC-8) (communication)
15. Frank Kratovil (MD-1) (communication)
16. Dennis Kucinich (OH-10) (communication)
17. Jim Marshall (GA-8) (communication)
18. Mike McIntyre (NC-7) (communication)
19. Mike McMahon (NY-13) (communication)
20. Charlie Melancon (LA-3) (communication)
21. Walt Minnick (ID-1) (communication)
22. Collin Peterson (MN-7) (communication)
23. Mike Ross (AR-4) (communication)
24. Heath Shuler (NC-11) (communication)
25. Ike Skelton (MO-4) (communication)
26. John Tanner (TN-8) (communication)
27. Gene Taylor (MS-4) (communication)

The next category I call "Hard to Persuade." It's based upon two factors.

(1) The member's race is currently rated "toss-up" by Charlie Cook, and the member is running for reelection.

(2) The member comes from a district where John McCain won 55% to 60% of the vote, and is running for reelection.

Here are these members.

1. Betsy Markey (CO-4) (Cook rates toss-up)
2. Jim Matheson (UT-2) (McCain won 58%)
3. Glenn Nye (VA-2) (Cook rates toss-up)
4. Harry Teague (NM-2) (Cook rates toss-up)

That leaves six members I'd put in the "Persuadable" category.

1. John Adler (NJ-3)
2. Brian Baird (WA-3)
3. John Boccieri (OH-16)
4. Bart Gordon (TN-6)
5. Suzanne Kosmas (FL-24)
6. Scott Murphy (NY-20)

On the flip side, we have (so far) twenty Democrats who voted yes in November who have since suggested they might not be willing to sign on to a new bill.

1. Michael Arcuri (NY-24)
2. Marion Berry (AR-1)
3. Shelley Berkley (NV-1)
4. Tim Bishop (NY-1)
5. Dennis Cardoza (CA-18)
6. Jerry Costello (IL-12)
7. Henry Cuellar (TX-27) (see also here)
8. Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3)
9. Joe Donnelly (IN-2)
10. Steve Driehaus (OH-1)
11. Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8)
12. Raul Grijalva (AZ-7) (Update, 3:30 PM 3/6: Or maybe not?)
13. Baron Hill (IN-9)
14. Steve Kagen (WI-9)
15. Dan Lipinski (IL-3)
16. Dan Maffei (NY-25)
17. James Oberstar (MN-8)
18. Earl Pomeroy (ND-AL)
19. Kurt Schrader (OR-5)
20. Bart Stupak (MI-1)
21. Dina Titus (NV-3)

What about the so-called "Stupak Democrats?" Berry, Costello, Cuellar, Dahlkemper, Lipinski, Oberstar, and (of course!) Stupak fall into this category, but there are probably others. I have two ways to gauge who they might be.

1. They voted for the Stupak amendment and they have a lifetime NRLC rating of higher than 80%.

2. They voted for the Stupak amendment and they signed a letter in June, 2009 saying that they would oppose a bill "unless it explicitly excludes abortion funding from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan."

I've made a note of those who fall into both categories.

1. Brad Ellsworth (IN-8) (NRLC score of 91%)
2. Paul Kanjorski (PA-11) (signed letter)
3. Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) (signed letter)
4. Alan Mollohan (WV-1) (NRLC score of 97%)
5. Solomon Ortiz (TX-27) (both)
6. Nick Rahall (WV-3) (NRLC score of 97%)

Charlie Wilson (OH-6) has been mentioned as a Stupak Democrat, though he does not fit these categories. Using a different, but equally good, methodology - Chris Bowers of Open Left finds a lot of overlap. He adds Chris Carney (PA-10), Mike Doyle (PA-14), Baron Hill (D-IN), and Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-1) while removing Kaptur and Ortiz. Kirkpatrick does not fit his methodology, having voted against the Stupak amendment in November - but the rest of them make sense. Doyle has a very high NRLC score (77%) while Hill and Carney come from pro-life districts. Update, 2:30 AM 3/6: As mentioned above, Hill has suggested that he is wavering, in part because of the use of reconciliation. Also, it's important to note that my methodology did not catch Marion Berry as a potential defector because of abortion. This just underscores the roughness of my count. Even members who seem to have committed can flip back. Remember MM-M!

Bottom line: Democratic leaders have a tough road ahead.

I'm going to keep updating this. Check back regularly with this page if you are interested. Also, if I've missed an important news items that relates to one of these members, please forward it to me at horseraceblog@realclearpolitics.com!

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-Jay Cost

The Return of ObamaCare, Part II: The Political Context

In the last essay, I argued that the legislative process is going to complicate the passage of Obama's health care reform proposal. Just how complicated it will be is too early to say.

The politics are at least as complicated, if not more so. The biggest trouble will be in the House, not in the Senate. Consider:

-The vote on final passage of the Affordable Health Care for America Act was 220 to 215, with 38 Democrats voting with Republicans.

-John Murtha has since passed away.

-Robert Wexler has since resigned, and Florida's 19th Congressional District will not elect a replacement until early April.

-Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii's 1st Congressional District will resign at the end of this month. The special election to replace him will be held May 22. Thanks to the peculiar election rules, Republicans actually stand a chance of replacing him.

-Reports indicate that Joseph Cao, the sole Republican to support the reform efforts in November, will not do so this time around.

-That puts the number at 216-216, which is insufficient for passage.

Additionally, striking the Stupak abortion language from the bill will satisfy the left flank of the House caucus, but it will scare off pro-life Democrats who voted with the Speaker in November. There are 15 Democrats who voted for the Stupak amendment and for final passage with a lifetime National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) score of 70% or higher. 6 have a score higher than 90%.

For any votes held between the time that Abercrombie resigns and Wexler's replacement is seated, the Speaker will need to flip at least one Democratic vote to get the bill to pass. Factor in the Stupak Democrats, and the real number is probably between 5 and 20. That is, she'll have to convince between 5 and 20 Democratic House members who voted nay in November to vote yea this time around.

Next question: who are these House Democrats that voted nay in November? Here are some relevant details on them:

-Obama's median share of the presidential vote in their districts was just 45%.

-22 of them voted in favor of the Stupak amendment. 12 have lifetime NRLC scores greater than 70%.

-13 are freshmen members. 24 are Blue Dogs. 3 have stated plans to retire.

-On four divisive roll calls this year - cap-and-trade, financial reform, raising the debt limit, and the jobs bill - 34 voted against the leadership at least once; 21 at least twice; 12 at least three times.

-Update, 1:30 PM. Charlie Cook rates 31 of these 38 seats as competitive. 2 are likely Republican; 9 are toss-up; 9 are lean Democratic; 11 are likely democratic.

Nothing conveys a political problem quite like a map. Here is how their districts are distributed geographically.

District Location of Nay Voters - Google Maps.jpg

Put simply, these will be some tough nuts to crack.

It's important to note that whatever changes the reconciliation bill ultimately embodies are not really being done for the sake of these 38 members. They are instead meant to bring on board the House liberals. So, getting 50 votes in the Senate for a reconciliation bill is not directly related to securing any of these 38 defectors.

It's far too early to put any probability numbers on anything occurring. Instead, I think it's more worthwhile to highlight some salient political themes. There are a few that help the Democrats in their efforts to flip some of these members, and a few that hurt them.

Themes That Help

1. Pocket Votes? Among scholars of Congress, relatively few think that legislative parties operate primarily by influencing their members directly on roll call votes. That's not to say that the parties in the House are powerless. The most compelling work on party power in recent years has suggested that the party organizations are set up as agenda-setting cartels, making sure that items that would split the majority in half do not get brought for a vote on the House floor. Simply put, the leadership's job is to make sure that the floor vote always goes with a "majority of the majority."

Still, there has been research suggesting that "pocket votes" are indeed an important factor at the margins. An example of such a pocket vote, or option, is offered by David King and Richard Zeckhauser of Harvard in Legislative Studies Quarterly.

Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-PA)...cast the deciding vote on President Clinton's 1993 budget-reconciliation bill. As the last legislator to vote on August 5, 1993, the outcome was hers to determine, and most observers expected a "no" vote. Margolies-Mezvinsky voted "yes" instead. Congressional Quarterly tells the story: "She had pledged during her campaign and even the day before the vote that she would vote against a bill that increased taxes. But Democratic leaders extracted a private promise from her to support the deficit-reduction package if her vote proved necessary to pass it" (CQ Almanac 1993, C39). This was a classic "if you need me" pledge, which we shall label an "option." Although it was widely predicted that the tax package would be handily defeated, President Clinton and House leaders got matters close enough that calling in the option on Margolies- Mezvinsky's vote was worthwhile; the bill triumphed by a single vote.

How many such "options" does Nancy Pelosi have among these 38 nay voters? That's the big question, and it is impossible to pin down a precise answer. However, it's important to note that the Stupak amendment is precisely the kind of bill that the party leadership does not allow onto the floor - it passed, but with a majority of the majority voting against it. That Pelosi allowed this to happen suggests that she needed the Stupak voters, which in turn suggests that they are (or at least, were) more numerous than however many pocket votes she had.

I would suggest, then, that Pelosi's pocket votes are probably not enough to get the bill to passage absent the Stupak language. Still, her pocket votes could cut down on the number of Democrats she has to flip. In particular, I'd look at the announced three retirees who voted against the bill in November - Brian Baird of Washington, and Bart Gordon and John Tanner of Tennessee - as the most likely pocket votes for the Speaker.

2. Lieberman Over Waxman. The Senate bill will inevitably form the bulk of the final product. Now that Scott Brown is the junior senator from Massachusetts, the Democrats can only hope to make modest changes to it. This means that the nominal price tag - as assigned by CBO - should be lower than what the House passed. It also means that the public option is gone. Lefty number crunchers want us to believe that this is in fact a bad thing for moderate Democrats because the public option is the biggest hit since Saturday Night Fever - but the data buttressing this argument lacks external validity. Oh sure, have the pollsters at ABC News/WaPo define the public option for people, and it does pretty well. But these moderate members didn't get to Congress by relying on the ABC News/WaPo poll. They know better than that. They understand that a public option opens the door for a full-blown GOP campaign about a "government takeover of health care." Take another look at that map, and ask yourself if the moderates who are scared of the public option are acting as irrationally as the polls and their diviners on the left have suggested. No way. The reality is that the public option is a political nightmare for many of these members - and it's a blessing for them that it has been removed.

So, having a bill whose guts are more like the Senate bill, i.e. more moderate, might make it easier to flip a few of these members.

Themes That Hurt

1. Reconciliation. In the last column, I identified myself as a procedural Hobbesian. I don't think "right" and "wrong" enter into considerations on procedural matters. That does not mean, however, that reconciliation is not going to give the GOP another political angle. It is. Scott Brown's office offers a sneak peak (h/t NRO's Critical Condition):

"If the Democrats try to ram their health-care bill through Congress using reconciliation, they are sending a dangerous signal to the American people that they will stop at nothing to raise our taxes, increase premiums and slash Medicare...Using the nuclear option damages the concept of representative leadership and represents more of the politics-as-usual that voters have repeatedly rejected."

The Democrats will push back, but (again) look at that map and consider the audience. Is the GOP argument going to have traction in these districts? I'd say yes.

2. Who Goes First? Somebody has to. Either the Senate passes the reconciliation fix first or the House passes the Senate bill first. House liberals will want the Senate to act first. They do not want to pass the Senate bill, then have the GOP use the Byrd rule to gut the major compromises in the reconciliation bill. That would be as bad as passing the original Senate bill all by itself, which they just cannot do.

Unfortunately for them, a key Senate Democrat is suggesting that the House has to go first.

(Kent) Conrad (Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee) threw some doubt Wednesday on the plan that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he could accept -- to pass the sidecar reconciliation bill with the fixes before the House takes up the Senate bill, as a way to mollify House members who strongly oppose the more conservative Senate measure.

Conrad, who has been open to reconciliation as long as the fixes are limited, said the order must be reversed. The House must pass the Senate bill first -- before either chamber considers the reconciliation package, he said.

"I don't know of any way, I don't know of any way where you can have a reconciliation bill pass before the bill that it is meant to reconcile passes," said Conrad, who would be a central figure on the Senate floor if Democrats embark on the complicated process. "I don't know how you would deal with the scoring. I don't know how I could look you in the eye and say this package reduces the deficit. It's kind of got the cart before the horse."

The rules of the reconciliation procedure indicate that when multiple committees report bills for reconciliation, they all go to the Senate Budget Committee, and thus to Conrad. His opinion matters.

3. Declining Support. In November, CNN had net support for the bill at -3. Now, it is at -20. If you're a Senate Democrat who isn't up for reelection until 2012 or 2014, this is not a huge concern. But if you're a House Democrat, you have to stand before the voters in less than nine months. This is a major problem.

Similarly, President Obama's net job approval was +7.7 in the RCP average on the day the health care bill passed the House. Today it is at +1.6. You can imagine where it is in those 38 districts.

4. It's a Scott Brown World. We're Just Living In It. The Democrats might be able to sidestep the legislative effect that Scott Brown's election has had - but what about the political effect? A heretofore unheard of Republican state senator won a Senate seat in Massachusetts by explicitly running against this bill. Politically speaking, this was a major event. It raises an important question: if the GOP can win in Massachusetts by running against ObamaCare, where can't it win? Toss in some other big-ticket political events - Evan Bayh's resignation, Byron Dorgan's resignation, and Charlie Cook now suggesting that a GOP takeover of the House could very well happen - and there is a growing sense among House Democrats that this is going to be a tough election year. Not a good political context for a nay-to-yea flip-flop.

5. "We got something done..." Or "I stood up to my own party..."? Suppose you are one of those 38 nay voters, and you flip your vote. What's your argument to your constituents? It would probably be something like this: "Obviously, this bill was not my ideal - that's why I voted nay in November. But it was so important that we Democrats get something done, that we proved we were capable of governing - that I had no choice but to change my vote." Granted that could be an effective argument for reelection in Manhattan or San Francisco - but these 38 Democrats don't come from there. They hail from Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and so on. Big difference.

Politically speaking, they would be much better off voting against the bill again, going back to their constituents, and saying something like this: "You voted for me because I promised to be an independent voice in Washington, D.C. That's exactly what I have been. The leadership and the President pushed me hard to change my vote, but I know how strongly opposed you are to this bill - and so I resisted them."

Final Thoughts

I've been thinking hard about this subject for a couple days. I tried my best to come up with as many political pro's and con's for passing the health care bill - and you can see that the final count is 5-2, con.

Again, I'm not willing to put odds on anything, but this should make clear that there are major political hurdles left to jump, even if they can get a reconciliation bill through the Senate. Ultimately, the best news for reform advocates is that they only need maybe 15% to 50% of these previous defectors to come on board. In other words, most of them can continue to defy the President, and the bill can still pass.

Still, it will be no little feat to get any of those who voted against the bill in the fall to support it in the spring. A lot of the political problems have to do with the decaying political environment Democrats face. House members are inherently more sensitive to politics. This is as it was designed to be all the way back in 1787. Forcing Representatives to stand for reelection every two years makes them more responsive to the desires of their constituents, i.e. to politics. It's one thing to pass a bill through the House in November, 2009. It's another thing entirely to try it in April, 2010.

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-Jay Cost

The Return of ObamaCare, Part 1: The Legislative Context

With the Lazarus-like return of ObamaCare, liberal pundits are again touting budget reconciliation as a viable way forward. Blogger Ezra Klein offers an over-simple description of the process.

This is actually the sort of situation reconciliation was designed to address... Budget reconciliation is called "reconciliation" because it's supposed to speed the, well, reconciliation of the differences between two budget bills. That's exactly what's left to do with the health-care reform bills, which were indeed part of the 2010 budget and whose passage is expected in the 2011 budget.

It's more complicated than this, and in important ways. Here's some background on budget reconciliation.

It's a product of the 1974 Budget Act, which in turn was a product of presidential-congressional battles over fiscal responsibility. President Nixon had impounded funds to protest congressional profligacy. The courts ruled against him, but the court of public opinion ruled in favor of him. So, Congress reformed its ways by doing only what Congress can: adding another layer of complications to an already too-complicated process.

It goes like this. Early in the year, Congress passes a budget resolution that sets revenue and spending targets that instructed committees are supposed to meet. The House and Senate Budget Committees can then compile the committee-drafted products into a reconciliation bill. Reconciliation is optional, though in recent years it has become pretty regular.

Reconciliation bills have a privileged status on the Senate floor. There is no debate on whether to begin consideration of a reconciliation bill. Proposed amendments must be germane to the bill. Debate on the bill and any amendments to it is limited to 20 hours. If you've ever heard the phrase "vote-a-rama," this is where it comes from: when the time limit for debate on a reconciliation bill has been reached, remaining amendments are voted on in quick succession.

All of this is designed to facilitate Congress in making a budget plan, then actually sticking to it. Of course, determined congressional majorities, especially when given clear guidance by a determined President, have used reconciliations rules for purposes beyond the original intent. The first notable event in this history occurred in 1981 when President Reagan and the GOP Senate majority used it to cut spending and taxes by a significant amount. As legislative expert Walter Oleszek has written, "Never before had reconciliation been employed on such a grand scale."

Liberals like Klein will suggest that this justifies, in some ethical sense, the use that Harry Reid is now apparently planning for budget reconciliation. Conservatives will use words like "jam" and "ram" and phrases like "the nuclear option" to argue that there is no such justification.

When it comes to legislative procedure, I am a strict Hobbesian. There is what a Senate majority can do, and what it can't do. "Appropriate" or "inappropriate" are not applicable phrases. Congress is sovereign over its own procedures, which are the product of self-interested members working to secure reelection and/or policy goals. Morality doesn't enter into it. (See the note at the bottom of this post for another thought on this topic.)

I'll go a step further to suggest that people with strong policy preferences should rarely be listened to in a debate about appropriate procedure. People who care intensely about the final vote tally often don't care how the votes are counted, so long as they get their preferred outcome. This is why there was no hue and cry coming from most of these born-again majoritarians on the left when the Democrats were looking to filibuster judicial nominees in 2005. It is easy to find numerous examples of conservative hypocrisy on this subject, too.

The better question, then, is whether the Democrats can use reconciliation to get their health care bill through the Senate.

Can they?

Absent a filibuster-proof majority, the Democrats still have a handful of legislative options to pass the bill. They can:

(a) Negotiate with Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and/or Olympia Snowe to find a 60th vote.

(b) Prevail upon the House to agree to the Senate bill without amendment.

(c) Prevail upon the House to pass the original Senate bill, with both chambers passing a reconciliation bill resolving inter-chamber differences.

Let's think about each of these options.

Many liberals suggest that (a) is off the table because Olympia Snowe has magically become indistinguishable from Jim DeMint. I think this is a facile and self-serving argument, designed to pin the blame on polarization exclusively on increased conservatism on the GOP side. No doubt the GOP has moved rightward, but the Democratic Party has also moved leftward - so far to the left, in fact, that a true moderate like Olympia Snowe cannot cooperate with them. And, I hasten to add, ditto 38 House Democrats who defected from the party line in November. Are they part and parcel of Republican extremism?

The fact that (b) is off the table is a signal that the public is not wrong to dislike the proposal as broadly as it apparently does. From what I have gathered from media reports, House liberals are willing to sign on to the Senate bill only if their favored interest groups - labor unions - get special exemptions.

So, the preferred strategy is (c). Ezra Klein wants you to think that this is in keeping with the grandest traditions of the government's estimable budget process (stop laughing!), but that's a stretch. The "original intent" of reconciliation was to help Congress stick to its outlined budget plan, not to aid majorities in resolving inter-chamber differences on divisive, comprehensive reform of 1/6th of the United States economy.

Again, this is not to argue that the Democratic leaders are acting unethically here. The point is that, legislatively speaking, they are looking to put a square peg through a round hole.

Can they? Maybe, but it could be difficult.

I don't know how difficult it will be, and I'll suggest that in fact nobody really knows just yet. For starters, the ease or difficulty will depend on what the compromise between House and Senate Democrats actually entails, including what the House absolutely, positively must get for it to be willing to pass the Senate bill. Nobody yet knows the contents of said compromise because it hasn't been reached yet.

Assuming there is some compromise, the success or failure of the process in the Senate will come down to a simple question: how well can the Republicans use the "Byrd rule?"

The Byrd rule, named after Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), was implemented in the 1980s because the Senate had used reconciliation to pass items that were not related to the budget. In other words, Senators were getting around the filibuster, that ancient device which is either the final protection against an extreme majority or the last recourse of a discredited minority (depending upon which side one finds oneself!). The Byrd rule puts limits on what reconciliation can be used for. Extraneous provisions are stricken from reconciliation bills, and have to be passed through the typical procedure. Here are several relevant definitions of "extraneous" (quoting a report from the Congressional Research Service by Robert Keith and Bill Heniff, Jr.):

A provision is considered to be extraneous if it fails under one or more of the following six definitions:
(1) It does not produce a change in outlays or revenues...

(4) It produces a change in outlays or revenues which is merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision.

(5) It would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure...

This suggests why smart Democrats never seriously discussed using reconciliation to pass an entire health care bill. If a provision does not alter spending or tax revenues, does so only "incidentally" (an unimportantly ambiguous word!), or adds to the deficit - it can be stricken.

The Byrd rule will set the parameters of the legislative battle, should the Democrats take this path. In that case, the Democrats will write a reconciliation bill that resolves the differences between the two chambers and, so they hope, does not include extraneous measures, as defined by the Byrd rule. The Republicans will test how well the Democrats have drafted their legislation - raising points of order in the hopes of striking provisions that they argue are extraneous.

Remember, this reconciliation bill is serving as the substitute for the amendment that would have resolved House/Senate differences had Scott Brown lost to Martha Coakley. The House needs the reconciliation bill to fix certain problems in the Senate bill, or else it will fail in the lower chamber. Mitch McConnell's goal will be to use the Byrd rule to blow a hole through the House/Senate compromise that the reconciliation bill embodies - thus creating a final product that the House cannot pass.

It's hard for me to compare this reconciliation attempt with previous ones because I am not an expert on the budget process, but I can say this. This strategy comes across as ironic when one reads the Audacity of Hope. In it, one finds then-Senator Obama preening about the horrors of Bush 43 legislative strong-arming and the assault on minority rights. Typical politicians tend to be hypocrites when it comes to the legislative process. Yet it is appropriate to hold the President to a higher standard, especially one who spent two years on the campaign trail hawking his moral superiority as a sure-fire tonic that can cure partisan division. His explanations for the lack of bipartisanship in his first 13 months are noteworthy examples of presidential sophistry. If history is any guide, expect the 44th President to earnestly explain that he really, really wanted to be bipartisan on health care - but sadly he could not find a single Republican in the United States Senate willing to negotiate in good faith. That's what this summit is all about, isn't it?

Budget reconciliation is a risky legislative strategy with much uncertainty. The Democrats are looking to use decades-old rules to do something the rule makers never envisioned. I don't know whether they can succeed - and I don't think anybody does yet, either.

As difficult as the legislative path is, the political path is much harder for Democrats. We'll discuss the politics tomorrow.

While I don't think right versus wrong properly enter into considerations of reconciliation, I have noticed one particularly ridiculous moral argument in favor of reconciliation making the rounds. We are told that it promotes the ideal of a simple majority, which most people believe is normatively appropriate. Indeed, that is the common opinion - but the Senate is not a majoritarian institution! You could have a super-majority of 82 senators whose constituents still don't amount to a majority of the United States population. So, what is the normative value of half-plus-one votes in an institution where votes are not pegged on population?

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-Jay Cost

On Evan Bayh's Retirement

I'll take Senator Bayh at his word that he is sick and tired of partisan politics in Washington, D.C. Still, I do think that his electoral situation had a great deal to do with his decision to retire. Whether he was bound to win or lose in November, he was sure to face a nasty reelection fight, one that would have focused squarely on him. That's a tough prospect for anybody - and if your heart is not in it, it's a good time to retire.

And I do think it's a retirement, not a preparatory move for the presidency. First, you don't tell people you're sick of politics if you plan to run for President. Second, I think it's highly unlikely that Bayh could ever actually win the Democratic nomination - and I think he knows it. He has been in Indiana politics for a quarter century. That requires a level of political moderation that would make him a tough sell for progressives and labor unions.

I think it is fair to say that this retirement is a recent decision on the part of Senator Bayh. When you look at the roll call votes on health care reform in December, Bayh was voting with the Republicans on a series of amendments, like the Gregg Amendment, "to prevent Medicare from being raided for new entitlements and to use Medicare savings to save Medicare." That's the kind of vote you take when you're looking to inoculate yourself for an electoral campaign. Only three Democrats voted with Republicans on that amendment: Bayh, Ben Nelson, and Jim Webb.

Still, Bayh's problem is that he was set to be on the hook for several unpopular votes. Obviously, there was health care reform. He also voted for the stimulus bill. Republicans are certainly running on the debt this year, which is why the votes to raise the debt ceiling - a necessary move - were party line votes. Bayh would thus have to answer for voting with his party on the federal debt limit.

Bayh has a reputation in the Senate as a moderate, and by contemporary standards that is a fair characterization. He's also more moderate than his father. Yet he has not been exempt from the process of increasing legislative polarization. Thus, he and other moderates like Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, and Mark Pryor are not really centrists in the strictest sense of the word. They're to the left of center. Susan Collins, Nelson, and Olympia Snowe are the only true centrists left in the upper chamber. Bayh was a good bit to their left.

And his problem, of course, was that thanks to the legislative strategy designed by his party's leadership, he was obliged to support them as the critical vote over and over. Nancy Pelosi could always allow up to 40 vulnerable House Democrats to defect from the tough votes, but there was no such luxury in the Senate. Absent bipartisan cooperation, Reid could not suffer a defection on any major item - which meant Bayh had to vote with the party every time. That might not have been a problem in other cycles, but in this one it was going to be a big one.

Could Bayh have won in November? Yes, but it was no certainty. If 2010 turns out to be a "GOP Wave" - Bayh is exactly the kind of candidate you'd see go down, even though the most formidable GOP opponents, e.g. Mitch Daniels, declined to challenge him. So, there was a decent chance he would lose. And a victory would probably be narrow, and it would follow a brutal campaign focused squarely on Evan Bayh.

At this point, the House electoral landscape is not quite as dramatic as what we're seeing in the Senate - but I take the Senate to be a leading indicator of the House. Senators are higher profile, and states are more easily polled than congressional districts. The fact that the Senate landscape looks so bad for the Democrats now - with 10 of 18 Democrat-held seats rated "Lean Democrat" or worse according to Charlie Cook - is a sign that the GOP will be very strong in House elections, too. We'll probably see the House picture take shape later in the year. If it mimics the Senate, the Democrats are going to be in for a very rough November.

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-Jay Cost

The Blair House Stunt

The bipartisan health care summit is either:

(a) An honest endeavor to build a bipartisan coalition in support of health care reform.

(b) A political stunt intended to win the White House a news cycle or two.

My instant reaction when I heard about the meeting was that it is a stunt, that the White House felt that they had "won" the battle with the GOP at the House Republican retreat, and so why not do a sequel? The public loves sequels! Transformers 2, The Dark Knight, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Led Zeppelin II, and so on. Plus, it's not as if an obvious legislative strategy for passing health care has presented itself. As Hollywood has clearly demonstrated, the sequel is the best way to grab attention when you're genuinely out of good ideas!

There are three notable facts about this meeting at Blair House that indicate that it's a stunt:

(1) It's televised. The White House was dinged by the press corps for breaking the campaign promise of televising every meeting on C-SPAN, but the reason the White House broke that promise was because it was a stupid one that had to be broken. C'mon - you can't get stuff done when the cameras are rolling! The cameras completely alter the incentive structures for the attendees. Thanks to the cameras, the participants won't be worried about finding common ground on a bill, or debating the merits of this idea or that idea. Instead, they'll be thinking about their constituents back home, or undecided voters across the country who may swing in November, or whomever. They transform from legislators hammering out a deal to politicians preening for the "benefit" of the voters. Televising these proceedings means that we'll get little more than recitation of talking points, which is what we see every Sunday on the news shows. "Meet the Republicans. With your host, Barack Obama."

(2) The invitation was extended to the party leaders. Just as strong an indication that this is a stunt. If I were a Democrat looking to build a bipartisan coalition, there are about 15 or so Senate Republicans I'd look to before Mitch McConnell. In fact, the whole idea of bipartisanship - at least on a controversial issue like health care reform - is one where the President should not be looking to win over a majority of the opposition. I do not think there is any comprehensive health care reform bill that President Obama could sign and Mitch McConnell could vote for. So why is he coming the meeting? A truly bipartisan legislative strategy would be one where you separate the moderates like Olympia Snowe from the party leadership. So, it's a less-than-great idea to invite the leadership to the bipartisanship meeting! Unless, of course, your goal is to make yourself look good and the congressional GOP leadership look bad. In that case, you'd want McConnell there.

(3) It's in February, 2010. This is just nine months from a midterm election where the GOP is expected to do well. Why in the world would the Republican leadership want to risk that by helping the President bail out his massively unpopular health care reform initiative? The time for bipartisanship was last year, and (as I noted in a previous article) the legislative scope where bipartisanship is possible is much smaller than comprehensive reform of 1/6th of the United States economy. No matter how nice Blair House is, it won't be enough to get Eric Cantor and Barack Obama to agree on such a sweeping legislative program.

This is a PR stunt from a West Wing staff whose major experience prior to entering the White House was the electoral campaign, which is really just an accumulation of PR stunts. They're going with what they know. The White House believes that the President bested the congressional Republicans at the retreat, and they want to try the same thing again.

I think the White House did best the GOP at the retreat, that Obama did get some nice press, and that the Republicans were made to look weaker. So, from a certain perspective, I understand the logic here. But, from another perspective, it is mind-numbingly ridiculous. What is the ultimate purpose of this? Memo to the West Wing: your guy is the President now. It doesn't matter whether he can out-debate the congressional GOP. He gets the credit or the blame for policy output. That is all that matters. This Blair House meeting is just noise that Politico, The Hill and Roll Call will write about for a few days - and that's all it is. This President will be judged on whether the government under his tenure has solved problems, not whether he can out-talk the congressional GOP in some silly debate. In a word, it's not about campaigning - it's about governing.

You'd think that they would have figured that out by now!

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-Jay Cost

America is Not Ungovernable

Recently, some analysts have suggested that the lack of major policy breakthroughs in the last year is due to the fact that America has become ungovernable. Ezra Klein argued that it was time to reform the filibuster because the government cannot function with it intact anymore. Tom Friedman suggested that America's "political instability" was making people abroad nervous. And Michael Cohen of Newsweek blamed "obstructionist Republicans," "spineless Democrats," and an "incoherent public" for the problem.

Nonsense. America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job.

Let's acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III's government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.

The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.

The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind - but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.

The President's two major initiatives - cap-and-trade and health care - have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That's a good thing.

It's not accurate to blame this on the Republicans. From Arlen Specter's defection to Scott Brown's swearing in, Democrats had total control over the policy-making process. The only recourse the Republicans had was the First Amendment. They used it well, but don't let it be said that the President lacked access to it. Given Mr. Obama's bully pulpit and his omnipresence on the national stage, his voice has been louder than anybody's. If Mr. Obama has lost the public debate to the beleaguered rump that is the congressional GOP, he has nobody to blame but himself.

It's not accurate to blame this on "spineless Democrats," i.e. rank-and-file legislators who balked at the various solutions offered by Mr. Obama. Moderate Democrats might have defected because they were worried about their jobs - but the point of popular elections is to link the personal interests of legislators with the interests of their constituents. It often fails to work - but in a situation where "spineless Democrats" clearly voted with their districts, it seems to have been working pretty well. One might argue that they should have shown some leadership - voted for unpopular bills because they were good for the country. But ask those thirty to forty House Democratic defectors on the health care, cap-and-trade, and jobs bills whether they thought the bills were good for the country, and you'll hear a different answer than the one Newsweek is quick to give.

It's not accurate to blame this on the people. This country is most certainly divided, but not deeply so. Consider, for instance, the enormous goodwill that greeted Mr. Obama upon his inauguration. It is not tenable to suggest that there was no way to turn that into a broad consensus for policy solutions.

The responsibility for the government's failure in the last year rests with President Obama. Two significant blunders stand out.

First, President Obama has installed Nancy Pelosi as de facto Prime Minister - giving her leave to dominate not only the House, but also the entire domestic policy agenda. The indefatigable Speaker Pelosi has taken advantage of the President's laissez-faire attitude by governing from the left.

That's not to say that the left has been happy with the domestic proposals that have come up for a vote. Instead, the point is that policy has consistently been built from the left - thanks in no small part to the very liberal chairs of key committees - with compromises made to win just enough centrist votes to get passage. On the jobs bill, the health care bill, and the cap-and-trade bill, the Democrats won only narrow victories due to mass defections on their own side. Almost all of these defections were from the center. Faced with a choice between losing a moderate or a liberal, the Speaker has consistently chosen to sacrifice the moderate.

It's easy to blame the Senate for inactivity - but the problem is the House. It has consistently passed legislation that is too far to the left for the Senate and the country. Ultimate responsibility rests with the President, whose expressed indifference toward policy details has allowed the more vigorous House Democrats, led by an extraordinarily vigorous Speaker, to dominate. That the President consistently praised the House and blamed the Senate in his State of the Union address suggests that he remains unaware of this problem.

The President's second major failing has been his stubborn insistence on comprehensive reforms. Perhaps this is due to his inexperience in the federal lawmaking process, or his extraordinary vanity, or both. Still, this has been a grave mistake. If the truly great Henry Clay could not pass the Compromise of 1850 through the Congress in a single package, what made Barack Obama think he could sign comprehensive energy and health care reforms?

President Obama's desire for comprehensive legislation seriously damaged the chances for bipartisanship, given his decision to let Nancy Pelosi and her allies write the bills. Republican "extremism" is an easy rhetorical foil - but when we're talking about Mike Castle and Olympia Snowe voting against the President, it fails to explain the full story. Bipartisanship implies legislators with different world views working together. The larger a bill's scope, the more likely it favors one worldview over another, and the less likely it will attract bipartisan support. With an extremely liberal Speaker and a supporting cast of left wing committee chairs running the process, comprehensive legislation was bound to favor heavily the liberal worldview. Even the most moderate of Republicans would always have trouble with that. In fact, thirty to forty House Democrats have defected on the President's key items, meaning that the bipartisan position has been opposition to President Obama. This has made it difficult for a centrist public to support reforms. With very limited information on specifics, the public took unanimous Republican and substantial moderate Democratic opposition as cues about the merits of the bills. Public opposition is what ultimately ended the Democratic supermajority - in Massachusetts, of all places.

Both of these failures get back to the idea that this country can only be led effectively when there is a broad coalition supporting her leaders. That requires those leaders to have a breadth of vision that this President has so far lacked. He has allowed a very liberal Speaker to lead the House too far to the left, and he has demanded comprehensive reforms that were destined to alienate a significant portion of the country.

He has been narrow, not broad. He has been partial, not post-partisan. He has been ideological, not pragmatic. No number of "eloquent" speeches can alter these facts. This is why his major initiatives have failed, why his net job approval has dropped 50 points in 12 months, and why he is substantially weaker now than he was a year ago.

This strategy might have made sense if the country was really in the midst of a "liberal moment." But it is not. While the President won a decisive victory in 2008, his congressional majority in both chambers depends entirely upon members whose constituents voted for John McCain. In fact, the President's election 16 months ago was one of the most polarizing in recent history. This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.

America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.

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-Jay Cost

Could Nancy Pelosi Lose Control of the House?

At its essential level, a political party is an extra-governmental conspiracy to control the government. Our constitutional system disperses power across three branches, two chambers of Congress, and federal, state, and local levels. The parties are centralizing forces, trying to unite all governmental power under the party banner. They accomplish this task when conspiring officials across the government coordinate their activities with others whose views are similar.

To be successful, a conspiracy requires a shared belief among the conspirators that their interests are linked - something to the effect of, "Whatever happens, we sink or swim together." This is really the only glue that binds a political party together. American party structures are very weak; partisans participate in the "conspiracy" only if they believe it will help them in the long run.

For some time, it's been clear that the efforts to pass the health care bill have tested the Democrats' ability to conspire. With the bill's apparent failure, stories abound suggesting backbiting among party leaders across branches of government. This was the report in a recent Politico story:

President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be all smiles as the president arrives at the Capitol for his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, but the happy faces can't hide relationships that are fraying and fraught.

The anger is most palpable in the House, where Pelosi and her allies believe Obama's reluctance to stake his political capital on health care reform in mid-2009 contributed to the near collapse of negotiations now.

But sources say there are also signs of strain between Reid and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and relations between Democrats in the House and Democrats in the Senate are hovering between thinly veiled disdain and outright hostility.

Senate Democrats are mad at House Democrats. House Democrats are mad at Senate Democrats. And everybody is mad at the President. This is not the mark of a well-functioning conspiracy!

But things could get worse. House roll call votes from late in 2009 suggest that there might be a backbench revolt brewing that could undermine Democratic control of the government.

Remember, the Democrats control the House only because they can muster the needed 218 votes to pass legislation or execute procedural maneuvers. That's the essence of the House conspiracy. But, again, it's an entirely voluntary one. If Blue Dogs, moderates, or at-risk members start defecting in large enough numbers, and Pelosi can't pull in the needed half-plus-one of the chamber - she loses effective control of the legislative appartus.

By the end of December, there was a surprisingly large number of backbench defections. Let's run through a list of the big ones from June onward.

Democratic Defections.jpg

These were all partisan votes in that Republicans mostly voted against the Democratic leadership. Two of the bills - HR 2454 (cap and trade) and HR 3962 (health care reform) - were high profile pieces of legislation that attracted a lot of attention. But the rest did not garner nearly as much focus, and several of them are downright obscure. And yet the number of defectors was still high.

It's striking to see 29 Democrats defect on a concurrent resolution providing for the adjornment of Congress. Or how about 39 Democrats defecting on a bill "to permit continued financing of government operations." That's an increase of the debt limit. How could so many vote against it? After all, the House voted through all the spending that required an increase in the debt limit. Yet Pelosi could only muster 218 Democrats to do what absolutely, positively had to be done!

This is the mark of a partisan conspiracy that is in some jeopardy.

All of these bills passed, defectors aside. Yet the concern for Democrats should be that, as we approach the 2010 midterm, the number of defectors begins to hit 40 or more. That will happen if Democratic backbenchers sense a need to put more distance between themselves and the leadership. In that case, the Democrats will need Republican votes. They got enough on cap-and-trade, but the GOP caucus might not be so amenable in the future.

Something like this happened in the summer of 1994. Rich Lowry referenced it on the Corner recently. What happened was that, in the course of passing President Clinton's crime bill, the Democratic leadership suffered huge defections on what should have been a worry-free procedural vote. Michael Barone offers a recap in the 1996 Almanac of American Politics:

[T]oo many Democrats, lulled by the widespread assumption in Washington that Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare package or something like it would inevitably pass, failed to separate themselves from this increasingly popular program until it was too late.

That moment came, ironically, when Democrats were poised to push through a piece of legislation they thought would make them widely popular, the 1994 crime backage. But the House and Senate leadership, trying to please the liberals in their own caucuses who wanted social work and gun control measures more than the large majority of voters who wanted tough law enforcement and punishment, put together a package that House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich could portray as "social work" and "pork." All but 11 Republicans voted against the rule to consider the crime bill, while 58 Democrats, most of them opponents of the control measures insisted on by liberals, voted no also. The Clinton Administration and the Democratic leadership tactic of keeping liberals happy and using their whips to bludgeon enough moderate Democrats to produce 218 votes had definitively failed.

Ultimately, Democrats won enough Republican votes to pass the crime bill. Yet this simple procedural vote exposed a deep crack in the Democratic foundation, as the party leadership was no longer able to keep 218 members together on crucial votes.

If something like this happens in the 111th Congress, what would be the result? Simply put, the Democrats would lose effective control of the House. Nancy Pelosi would continue to be Speaker, top Democrats would still hold all of the key committee chairs, but they would be unable to legislate on the hard stuff. They could still get things like HR 4474, the "Idaho Wilderness Water Facilities Act," passed through the House - but on anything with a whiff of controversy, she and the leadership could be in trouble.

This is something to watch for as we enter an election year with continued high unemployment, a marginally unpopular President, and an economy experiencing only a tepid recovery. It could be a challenge for Speaker Pelosi to keep 218 of her partisans together, and retain effective control over the legislative process in the House of Representatives.

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-Jay Cost

Is Health Care Reform A Sure Thing?

David Dayen over at FireDogLake has a clip of Emanuel Cleaver giving a less-than-bullish account of the prospects of health care reform in the House:

As Dayen notes, the math is not a slam dunk for House leadership.

Consider the following.

The bill earned 220 votes the first time around. Yet Robert Wexler has resigned. That puts the total support at 219.

Let's assume that the new bill will lack Stupak language on abortion - a reasonable one, I think. That would lose them Joseph Cao, the sole Republican supporter. Bart Stupak claims that he has 10 to 12 Democrats who would walk away then, too.

Assuming Stupak's number is correct, that puts the bill at 206 to 208, with 218 needed for support. The House leadership would have to find 10 to 12 supporters among the 38 Democrats who voted against it late last year.

TalkingPointsMemo has been keeping careful track of these members, and they have found four who are still nays, seven who are "keeping their options open" (TPM's phrase), and just one "leaning yes." The one leaning yes is Jason Altmire, who appears to have attracted a serious Republican opponent for his western Pennsylvania district. He also voted against the rule for debate and amendment on the original bill. He also didn't vote for it when it was in Education and Labor. These are the sort of things a member does when he's looking to build a track record of opposition. So color me skeptical that he's actually leaning yes.

If TPM's count is correct, and my math is not terribly off the mark, it suggests that Pelosi and the Democratic leadership would have to attract 10 to 12 of the nay votes. Here's the list of those whose votes are still conceivably gettable, from TPM. "BD" indicates a Blue Dog, "F" indicates a freshman:

John Adler (D-NJ): F
Jason Altmire (D-PA): BD
Brian Baird (D-WA)
John Barrow (D-GA): BD
Dan Boren (D-OK): BD
Rick Boucher (D-VA)
Allen Boyd (D-FL): BD
Ben Chandler (D-KY): BD
Travis Childers (D-MS), BD
Artur Davis (D-AL)
Lincoln Davis (D-TN): BD
Chet Edwards (D-TX)
Bart Gordon (D-TN): BD
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD): BD
Tim Holden (D-PA): BD
Larry Kissell (D-NC): F
Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)
Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL): F
Frank Kratovil Jr. (D-MD): F, BD
Betsy Markey (D-CO): F, BD
Jim Marshall (D-GA): BD
Jim Matheson (D-UT): BD
Charlie Melancon (D-LA): BD
Michael McMahon (D-NY): F
Walt Minnick (D-ID): F, BD
Scott Murphy (D-NY): F
Glenn Nye (D-VA): F, BD
Colin Peterson (D-MN): BD
Mike Ross (D-AR): BD
Heath Shuler (D-NC): BD
Ike Skelton (D-MO)
John Tanner (D-TN): BD
Gene Taylor (D-MS): BD
Harry Teague (D-NM): F

Scanning this list, it's easy to tick off a bunch of people who are going to be all but impossible to win over: Boren, Artur Davis, Edwards, Kratovil, Kucinich, Melancon, Minnick, Shuler, Taylor come instantly to mind. I'd put some more on that list. Eliminating the Stupak language is not going to help them when one looks at the places where most of these people come from. 19 of these members are from the South. And if we cross-reference this list with CQ's ">chart of "McCain Democrats," we find that 25 of them hail from districts that voted for John McCain for President, some by very large margins. That's important because, for as unpopular as health care reform is nationwide, we should expect it to be less so in these districts. On this point, it's worth noting that a recent Public Policy Polling survey of Larry Kissell's North Carolina district produced some cross-tabs that suggest a yea on health care reform is harmful. Voters who (correctly) believed he voted against the bill in November were more likely to support him than those who (incorrectly) believed he voted against it.

Also, we're assuming that Kucinich is the only one who votes nay because the bill is not liberal enough. So far, I haven't heard a credible threat of defection from another progressive member, though Dayen suggests it's a possibility.

There are many factors that should help Obama and Pelosi pick up some of these nays. Eliminating the public option might make it easier for many of these moderates to vote yea. Stupak might not actually have 10 to 12 votes. Pelosi might have had some votes in her pocket should push come to shove (although probably less than the number who are really committed to Stupak language - otherwise she would not have acceded to his demands in November). Three of these members (Baird, Gordon, and Tanner) have announced retirement plans, so they might be disposed to vote with the party now that electoral pressure is gone. Others might be planning to retire but have not yet announced it, giving her more possible votes. Above all, the political pressure on these members to support the bill will be tremendous - and even if they are actually hurting their electoral prospects by voting for the bill, you can bet the White House and the House leadership will make a very strong argument that this will help them. See, for instance, Ben Nelson's pre-Christmas negotiations.

Still, I think it is far to hasty to say that this reform is inevitable. Minimally, the margin in the House is going to be razor-thin either way. We know that for sure, which in turn suggests that we shouldn't take final passage for granted. Emanuel Cleaver apparently isn't.

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-Jay Cost

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

How Far Will Democratic Leaders Go?

The two American political parties are great institutions with long, rich histories that stretch from the 1800s all the way to the present day. Today's parties are deeply connected to their past incarnations. Abraham Lincoln "belongs to the ages," as Edwin Stanton said, but the Republican Party of today has a special bond with the 16th President. The same goes for the Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt. All Americans can be proud that this country produced such a great leader. Yet he was a Democratic leader, which gives today's Democratic Party a special linkage to him. These connections are not merely nominal. Rather, there is a real intellectual tradition in both parties that unites past, present, and future.

This is why I have been frankly surprised by some of the concessions the Democratic Party's leaders have been willing to make in pursuit of a comprehensive health care reform bill. Each party has short term policy goals - in this case, the Democrats want to expand coverage. Yet these short term goals fit into a bigger philosophical framework. Some of these compromises seem to challenge that framework.

A big issue I have already discussed is their planned $491 billion reduction in Medicare over the next ten years. Medicare is the most significant fiscal policy achievement of the Democratic Party in the last seventy years. Protecting it from Republican cuts was a major reason Bill Clinton won reelection. To say the least, it is surprising that today's Democratic leaders are willing to make reductions in Medicare. What's especially surprising is that the cuts are coming not as an end in themselves (i.e. the party is finally focusing on stabilizing the system for future generations), but to find spare cash to finance another entitlement. Medicare has been lost in the shuffle of public options, abortion restrictions, taxes, regulations, and mandates - none of which has anything to do with it.

This lack of consideration is apparent in another aspect of the Senate bill. Keith Hennessey points out that it includes a Medicare payroll tax increase on those making more than $200,000 a year. He speculates that Senator Harry Reid chose this as a way to make up revenue lost by limiting the tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans. Hennessey rightly notes the significance of this policy:

With this proposal, Senator Reid is leading Democrats across a major philosophical threshold. Since Social Security was created in the 30's and Medicare in 1965, payroll tax revenues have been "dedicated" to financing these programs. While not all funding to finance Medicare comes from payroll taxes, all funding from the Medicare payroll tax finances Medicare. In other words, the 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax that you and your employer pay on your wages is all supposed to offset Medicare spending. That is part of the social insurance model, in which everyone pays in a fraction of their wages, and everyone receives benefits later...

Leader Reid's bill would use new Medicare payroll taxes to finance a new health entitlement outside of Medicare. His bill would turn Medicare payroll taxes into a general financing mechanism like the income tax. There is a slippery-slope argument against this that I would normally expect from the Left. If Republicans (or my former boss) had proposed this, I would expect AARP to come unglued and raise fears among seniors that, if this proposal becomes law, future Congresses might take payroll tax revenues and use them for highways or defense or other non-social insurance spending.

This expansion of the payroll tax is indeed a major shift. The social insurance model was a political innovation that sold Americans on the idea of Social Security. It was a way to provide for seniors without making anybody feel as if they were on the dole. This is not something that you would expect the Democrats to alter without serious deliberation - but they apparently are. Plus, as Hennessey notes, it potentially threatens the system in the future. If some Medicare dollars can be used to finance an expansion of welfare rather than the social insurance system, who's to say that more dollars from the system couldn't be used to finance capital gains tax cuts or missile defense?

Both of these policy innovations seem inconsistent with the grand traditions of the Democratic Party. I would expect its leaders to treat Medicare a little more reverently. And there might be one more innovation in the offing: the elimination of the public option. This would produce an extraordinary policy, one you would not expect to come from the Party of Jackson.

Why? Because there will presumably still be an individual mandate in the bill. Keeping the individual mandate but dropping the public option means that the Democratic Party will force many individuals to engage in commerce with private businesses that would intend to make a profit from such interactions. That is unbelievable! The Democratic Party was founded as an opposition group to the established economic and political orders. That opposition connects party leaders across the ages: Jackson's destruction of the Bank of the United States, Bryan's "Cross of Gold," FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great Society. These leaders pursued different means, but ultimately for the same end: protect the little guy from the powers that be. If the Democrats pass a health care bill with an individual mandate but without a public option - they'll be forcing the little guy to contract with those powers. And remember, the government is going to be imposing more regulations on these companies, and providing subsidies to them (by covering at least some of the costs of those deemed eligible). So, expect the insurance companies to quadruple the number of lobbyists they have stationed inside the Beltway, whispering in the ears of legislators about what sort of changes should be made to the system. Yet the little guy doesn't have any K Street lobbyists, and he won't be sending any in the future. That's what makes him the little guy.

Franklin Roosevelt did not go against the core principles of the Democratic Party to achieve his policy goals. Instead, he re-imagined those principles with his ingenious social insurance model. That's how he could provide assistance to the elderly without the label of "welfare." It was an important distinction for Americans, whose individualism is unmatched throughout the entire world. This social insurance model was such a durable framework that Lyndon Johnson could expand it to include Medicare for seniors. The Democrats want to expand health care further. A noble goal - but their challenge is to do it in a way that the public accepts and that is true to their history. It seems less and less likely that the final bill will fit these requirements.

As I have noted on my "About the Author" page, I am not a Democrat. Yet I respect the Democratic Party, not only because of its important contributions to the nation's history, but also because America needs the Democratic Party, just as it needs the Republican Party. The evolving health care proposal does not feel like something I'd expect the Democratic Party to produce. Instead, it is starting to seem like something drafted by a bizarre hybrid of the old Federalist Party and the British Labor Party.

I think it's time for Democrats to return to their Rooseveltian roots: find a commonsensical solution to the health care problem that the country can embrace, and one that is more consistent with the party's history and core beliefs.

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-Jay Cost

Tomorrow's Anticlimax in the Senate

The media is stirring up drama regarding tomorrow's vote - namely, they are speculating whether Landrieu and Lincoln will vote with Reid to start debate.

Of course they will. Three big reasons:

(a) "Keep the Ball Rolling". Tomorrow's vote - like all of the votes to date - is a process vote, meaning that Obama and the leadership can argue, "Vote yea to keep the process going. We can improve the bill later if you stick with us." Every vote they have won to date has, I think, been won based on this argument - and it should carry the day tomorrow. The problem comes with the last vote, i.e. to end the process and enact the law. You cannot argue to keep the process going on the final vote!

(b) No Harm For Yea. GOP candidates could conceivably tie tomorrow's vote to a vote for health care, but that's a very specious argument to make. I would guess that local newspapers and television outlets would call them out on it. Plus, if (for instance) Blanche Lincoln votes yea tomorrow but ultimately votes against closing debate - those ads would be very ineffective. What's more, there is an easy rejoinder, which we are already hearing: "I voted to open debate. What's so bad about debate?"

(c) Lots of Harm for Nay. A nay vote would gravely damage prospects for reform. And legislators on the Democratic side do not want to kill reform unless/until they absolutely have to, i.e. voting in favor on a particular item would seriously hurt their political careers. As noted above, a yea vote tomorrow will not damage anybody's political prospects. A nay vote, on the other hand, would make that senator a pariah in the broader party (the interest groups, activists, and enthusiasts on the Democratic side) - which, I hasten to add, is the primary funding source for all of these members. Lieberman's Independent Democrat status makes him basically half a Dem and half a GOPer. He's voting yea, which should tell you all you need to know.

Final point. The fact that these Democratic moderates are actually spending time "pondering" whether to vote against starting debate is a sign that they are very skittish about this bill. My guess is that this deliberation is just a dog and pony show for the folks back home - what's noteworthy is that these senators feel they must do this. The reason why is pretty clear. Take the nationwide net approval/disapproval of this bill, then subtract 10 to 20 points. That will put you in striking distance of what the voters in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska think of it. Then remember that Blanche Lincoln is up for reelection next year, Ben Nelson is up in three years, and Mary Landrieu has yet to develop much electoral security in her increasingly Republican state. She's up in 2014 - and if Obama wins reelection, she would have to stand before the voters of Louisiana in one of the roughest macro environments around (incumbent party's second midterm).

If I had to bet, I'd say the bill has maybe 54-56 votes in the Senate - with Bayh, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor all at least a little iffy. Losing Olympia Snowe between the Senate Finance Committee and the floor is a big deal - ideologically, she and Susan Collins are indistinguishable from Nelson. Also, these moderate Democrats come from generally Republican states [except Lieberman, who is going to need every Republican vote he can muster in 2012], and having Snowe on board gave them bipartisan cover that they do not have anymore. Liberals have been complaining about "President Snowe" for some time, but her support was a big deal. A few weeks ago, the story supposedly went that President Obama wanted Harry Reid to pursue Snowe's trigger idea. I'm not sure I believe that, frankly (it seemed a bit like a C/Y/A ploy by the White House) - but if it was true, then this is why. Keeping Snowe on board guarantees at least 61 votes. Losing Snowe might cost the Democrats up to six more senators.

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-Jay Cost

Have Democratic Leaders Gone Mad?

With the introduction of Harry Reid's health care bill - talk will inevitably focus on whether the public option or the Stupak amendment will undermine the legislation. Yet, if the bill dies, I do not think either of these will be the primary cause of death.

I think this will be the culprit:


This is the CBO's analysis of how the Reid bill will cut Medicare. The total reductions come out to $491 billion over 10 years when everything is factored in.

The following has been said by other commentators, but I have to add my voice to the chorus: This is insanity, Democratic leaders. Why are you doing this?

Getting AARP's support might give you cover among the Washington crowd, but let's inject some common sense here. Lots of people are members of AARP, but that does not mean they are intensely committed to it, and will therefore follow its lead on such an important issue. AARP is not like the unions in that regard. Lots of people join to get discounts on auto insurance and movie tickets, meaning that affiliation with the organization is broader than it is deep.

Obama's current numbers among senior citizens demonstrate the validity of this point, not to mention the concern that Democrats should have heading into 2010. Gallup has him at 45% among those over 65, and at 49% among those between 50 and 64. Hint. Quinnipiac has him at 42% with those over 55. Hint hint. Rasmussen currently shows Democrats losing the generic ballot among seniors by 15 points; in 2008, Democrats split the senior vote with the GOP. Hint hint hint.

Let's review the political power that American seniors wield. In the Virginia gubernatorial election, people over 65 accounted for 18% of all voters. In New Jersey it was 19%. People over 65 accounted for 19% of all voters in the 2006 House midterm. And even in the "Yes We Can!" presidential election of 2008, when college kids supposedly overwhelmed the normal electoral process, the 65 and over crowd still accounted for 16% of the electorate (unchanged relative to 2004).

The 2006 House exit poll showed the Democrats winning the national vote by a margin of 54 to 46. If, however, we plug in Rasmussen's current generic ballot number among seniors in place of what the Democrats actually won from that cohort in 2006, their lead falls to 52-48. Note that this assumes no change among younger cohorts. That's seniors alone cutting the Democratic margin in half. This also assumes that seniors do not come out in greater numbers in 2010 to defend against perceived assaults on their Medicare benefits.

Blanche Lincoln knows what I'm talking about. When she won reelection in 2004, seniors made up 16% of the electorate and went 59-41 for her. In the 1998 midterm, seniors made up 26% of the electorate and went 60-37 for her. In both contests, they were her strongest supporters. I wonder what she thinks of Table 2 in the CBO's analysis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Bob Dole knows what I'm talking about, too. From January through September of 1995, Bill Clinton's job approval numbers were tepid, with a typical net approval rating of about +2.5. Things turned around for him in late 1995 when the budget battle heated up and Clinton took a stand against...GOP reductions in projected Medicare spending! I'll let Michael Barone finish the story. This is from the 1998 Almanac of American Politics:

[I]n August 1995 [Clinton] started running political ads against the Republicans' Medicare plan. All this was part of a strategy pollster Dick Morris called "triangulation," taking positions between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans so as to elevate the president's stature above both...In November and December he negotiated on the budget with Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, promising them agreement at times, but he ultimately vetoed most of their appropriations bills. That technically shut down non-emergency functions of the federal government, a step which many Republicans initially welcomed and thought would be popular. This was a stunning miscalculation, as was their lack of a strategy to deal with Clinton's vetoes...By the time Republicans backtracked and agreed to Clinton's terms, their ratings were down and they were running behind Democrats in the polls.

The President declared at the time the deal was struck that his proposal was a "sensible solution" that showed "you can balance the budget in 7 years, and protect Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment and provide tax relief to working families." He cruised to reelection.

Not coincidentally, Dick Morris was the first to suggest that mucking around with Medicare would mean trouble for the Democrats. He knows what he's talking about, and in September he wrote:

The Democratic Party, led by Obama, is systematically converting the elderly vote into a Republican bastion. The work of FDR in passing Social Security in 1937 and of LBJ in enacting Medicare in 1965 is being undone by the president's healthcare program. The elderly see [Obama's] proposals for what they are: a massive redistribution of healthcare away from the elderly and toward a population that is younger, healthier and richer but happens, at the moment, to lack insurance. (Remember that the uninsured are, by definition, not elderly, not young and not in poverty - and if they are, they are currently eligible for Medicare, Medicaid or SCHIP and do not need the Obama program.) The elderly see the $500 billion projected cut in Medicare through the same lens as they viewed Gingrich's efforts to slice the growth in the program in the mid-1990s. [Emphasis Mine]

Why are Obama, Pelosi, and Reid doing this? How could they be so foolish as to repeat the most egregious mistake of the Republicans of the 104th Congress? Why are they forcing their vulnerable members to vote on a bill that would cut Medicare in this fashion? Do they dislike their moderate colleagues? Do they find the chore of being the majority party too burdensome? Have they simply gone mad?

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-Jay Cost

Pinochle and the Politics of Health Care

This weekend my wife and I went to my in-laws to play pinochle. I play on my mother-in-law's team, and after she pulled double aces, we decided to call it a night. As it usually does, the conversation turned to politics, and then to the health care debate.

Both of my in-laws are swing voters. They were skeptical of Obama last year, but finally voted for him after the financial collapse in September, 2008. "Time for a change," they explained to my wife. So, I was interested in their views. They expressed great skepticism of the reform efforts, and freely admitted that they don't know what's in these bills. "Nobody knows what's in them!" my father-in-law said emphatically at one point. Health care is a major issue for them, but neither of them seemed to have faith that the Democratic offerings would solve any of the nation's health care problems, about which they know a great deal.

This got me thinking, not only about the health care debate - but also the ebbs-and-flow of electoral politics. Partisans on both sides like to make much of the last election that favored them, while ignoring the others that didn't favor them. For many Democrats, 2008 was the definitive election. 2004? An outlier, an aberration, something to be cast aside in the Age of Obama. Just as many Republicans made the same mistake in 2004, happily overlooking returns from 1992 through 2000 when the Democratic presidential candidates won more votes than the Republicans.

But if we take all of those results seriously, how can we make sense of them? Part of it, surely, is that the electorate favors the incumbent party when times are good, and punishes it when times are bad. But I don't think that accounts for everything. Both parties offer a whole menu of policy proposals, and only some of them relate to the management of the economy or issues of war and peace. The country swings back and forth because there are a host of voters - folks like my in-laws - who can at least tolerate the policies of both sides. Why?

The following hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. But I'll offer it because I think it is intuitively plausible, and hopefully it can generate some good discussion. The Republican Party has historically been, and remains today, the party of business. The Democratic Party has long been the party of those whose interests are not aligned with business - poor farmers in the 19th century, labor unions in the 20th, immigrants, and so on. Today the Democratic Party is aligned with an expansive government, and the Republican Party is not. These attitudes toward government have not been written in stone - instead they have varied according to the needs of the parties' core constituencies. In the 19th century, business generally wanted tariffs - expansive, taxing government! - so the GOP pushed for steep tariffs. Today, business generally likes low taxes, and so the GOP is a low tax party. A similar transformation happened with the Democrats. In his 1832 campaign against Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic President, demagogued the Bank of the United States, the symbol of intrusive federal government in the early Republic. Yet after the Democrats embraced the idea that the government could be mobilized to support social welfare, it began to advocate a more expansive role for the feds.

This has resulted in the fundamental political divide of the day: business or government. This is an oversimplification in some respects, but I would maintain that a choice between the two parties is often a choice between which entity you distrust more at the time of the election: big business or big government. Perhaps this helps explain the peculiar American tradition of swing voting.

My in-laws are a good case in point. They don't like big business. They think big business is happy to sacrifice a fair wage for profit, and that the government needs to do what it takes to rein it in. They often remark negatively upon the massive bonuses the Wall Street execs have pulled in while average Americans have taken it on the chin. They often criticize Wal-Mart for its failure to provide health care for many of their employees. But they also don't care much for big government, either! They don't view the government as being particularly effective or efficient, and they do not want its role in their health care to increase. They don't see the Congress or the President representing the interests of the people very well, so they aren't terribly thrilled with the big government proposals that these branches have produced.

The Democrats are stuck in a rut because of this health care debate, even after the back-to-back thumpings they delivered to the GOP. Maybe this is why. After all, a vote against the business party is not necessarily a vote for the policies of the government party. The public can want the government to stop letting business interfere in their affairs without wanting the government to start interfering! They can - and do - distrust both big business and big government. I don't think the Democrats - or at least a lot of their leaders who run the show in Washington, D.C. these days - really thought of it that way when they were formulating their legislative agenda last winter. Maybe that is what has caused them to lose so much political momentum so quickly.

Maybe not. I'll say this, though: if the Democrats keep on the path they're on, I expect my in-laws to swing back the other way next time around.

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-Jay Cost

The Most Absurd Post-Election Spin

There are a lot of absurd post-election memes floating around out there. For instance, I've seen people suggest that NY-23 has national implications, but the GOP takeover of the NJ governor's race and its running of the tables in VA (winning all three statewide races and extending its majority in the House of Delegates) were purely local. That one makes me chuckle. If there was an Olympic medal to be had for pretzel logic, it would probably win the silver.

But not the gold. The gold must go to the ridiculous notion that the GOP is in so much trouble because it is divided, as evidenced by the results in NY-23. Never mind the fact that the party came together in New Jersey and Virginia. No: the divisions in a district that saw just 135,000 votes cast is a sign that the GOP is divided.

I think this is ultimately a faulty argument, but I can see how one would make it (kind of). The reason it gets the gold is not by an error of commission, but of omission. For, the GOP's divisions - whatever they may be - are utterly, totally dwarfed by the continuing divisions in the Democratic Party. Not only in scale, but in significance. Republicans might be divided over the symbolic role of Sarah Palin in the party, but Democrats are divided over what to do about health care.

Consider: three Democratic House committee chairs have committed to vote against Pelosi's bill on Saturday: Bart Gordon of Tennessee (Science), Colin Peterson of Minnesota (Agriculture), and Ike Skelton of Missouri (Armed Services).

Consider: up to 30 House Blue Dogs are considering voting no.

Consider: they're still going to lose at least a few pro-life Democrats on the vote, even if they adopt the compromise language proposed by Brad Ellsworth.

Consider: the House has decided to punt on the issue of immigration reform in the bill, knowing full well it will explode the fragile coalition they are putting together. Here's Politico:

And gone, for the moment, is an immigration fight that threatened to derail the entire bill when Hispanic lawmakers protested a move to include Senate verification language that would bar illegal immigrants from purchasing insurance through the exchanges.

That fight, like the one over biofuels, will be waged on another day, in a showdown with the Senate over just about everything else in the bill. For now, it seems Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally exhausted enough of her weary troops into the "yes" position.

And lest you think that the House Hispanic Caucus is kidding around, consider the following from The Hill:

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was also weighing its options on what to do about a push by some vulnerable centrist members to block illegal immigrants from being able to buy insurance on the bill's "exchanges," even with no subsidy.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he "would have a hard time voting for" a bill or procedural measure that did that.

"I'm tired of feeding hatred and bigotry," Gutierrez said.

He's talking about "feeding hatred and bigotry" on the Democratic side of the aisle. Remember, no Republicans are involved in the House process!

This does not even get into the tensions between the House and Senate. As significant as the tensions within the House are, I still expect Pelosi to get to 218 on her bill. The real fireworks will come if/when they get around to merging the bills (assuming that Reid can produce something that get can to 60 votes in his own chamber...substantially more difficult than Pelosi's task). After all, it was John Conyers, the Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who once said that the Democrats were "in trouble" because of Max Baucus, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Senate Finance's product, incidentally, is well liked by the Blue Dogs, who want the final product to be more like it. But then again Raul Grijalva's reaction to it was that it did not have "legitimacy." He's the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

But divisions are a Republican problem this week! Yep.

So, congratulations to all of you pundits spinning the NY-23 race as a sign of the crippling divisions within the GOP. I cannot offer you an actual Gold Medal in Pretzel Logic, but perhaps I'll offer you a complimentary copy of this 1974 classic from Becker and Fagan:


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-Jay Cost

Why Is the White House Courting Olympia Snowe?

Howard Fineman is perplexed:

[T]the pursuit of Snowe is pretty close to obsessive, which is not a good thing either for Democrats or for the prospects of health-care reform worthy of the name. First, Snowe's exaggerated prominence is both the result and symbol of Obama's quixotic and ultimately time--wasting pursuit of "bipartisanship." In case the White House hasn't noticed, Republicans in Congress are engaged in what amounts to a sitdown strike. They don't like anything about Obama or his policies; they have no interest in seeing him succeed. Despite the occasional protestation to the contrary, the GOP has no intention of helping him pass any legislation. Snowe may very well end up voting for whatever she and Democrats craft, but that won't make the outcome bipartisan any more than dancing shoes made Tom DeLay Fred Astaire.

First of all, let's clear away some of the underbrush - namely the prickly things Fineman has to say about Republicans. If a health care bill contains: (a) an individual mandate; (b) an employer mandate; (c) plenty of new tax increases; (d) no tort reform; (e) few of the substantive ideas Republicans have been pushing for a while; (f) potentially a government-run insurance program - is it any surprise that almost all Republicans are opposed to it? Isn't that what makes a Republican a Republican? This reads to me like another critique blasting Republicans for not being...Democrats.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on what might account for the White House's "obsessive" pursuit of Snowe. Last week I posited that perhaps it was because Lieberman has already signaled his intention to vote nay, but the latest news on the "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut is that he might vote for cloture then against the bill. If that's true, then Snowe would not be the 60th vote.

Here's an alternative explanation. Below is a look at the ideological scores of key Senate moderates, by two different metrics: their DW-Nominate scores from the 110th Congress and their National Journal "Percent Conservative on Economic Policy" scores on economic policy from the 110th Congress.

Ideological Scores of Senate Moderates.jpg

The DW-Nominate scores typically run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative). The NJ scores are pretty self-explanatory. You can really appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to Congress here by looking at the DW-Nominate gap between, say, Lisa Murkowski and Evan Bayh. There is a big gulf here, which helps explain that - contrary to Mr. Fineman's analysis - the GOP is in opposition not because they "have no interest in seeing him succeed," but because there is a huge ideological divide between Democratic party leadership, and even the most moderate members of the GOP caucus. If the lack of bipartisanship is due to the fact that Republicans have become more conservative, it's also due to the fact that Democrats have become more liberal.

But notice those peculiar members right smack dab in the center: Collins, Snowe, and Nelson. In actuality, each of them is closer to one another than they are to their fellow partisans. Collins, Snowe, Nelson, and Specter (before he jumped ship) are almost like a third party in Congress: the hyper-moderate party.

So, here's a two-part explanation for why Snowe is being wooed so aggressively. One: Collins, Snowe, Nelson are essentially identical on the ideological scale; accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Two: Snowe voted for the bill in the Senate Finance Committee; if she eventually bails, that could be sufficient to scare Nelson off.

My intuition is that if a final reform bill can get 60 votes, it should actually get 62 votes because of these three hyper-moderates. However, if Snowe switches from a yay to a nay, that could be sufficient to ward the other two off.

Bottom line: on an ideological level, it might be fair to say that there are three factions in the Senate: liberals, conservatives, and this small group of moderates. It's not enough for Democrats simply to unite the liberals. They also have to find a way to include at least one of these moderates. On the stimulus bill, these moderates were a package deal. They might be again, in which case it makes sense to court Olympia Snowe, the one moderate of the three who participated in the committee process.

-Jay Cost

The Problem with the Health Care Debate

A few weeks ago, I made this point about understanding what's really happening in the health care debate:

One of the problems with writing about Congressional policymaking as it happens is that a lot of the real meaty stuff happens behind closed doors, and leaders who give "progress reports" do not have an incentive to offer accurate assessments. Instead, they are better off giving overly bullish reports, i.e. spin. So, here is the trouble I find myself in. I suspect that most of the members who speak to the press are trying to spin me. I also do not trust the journalists producing the news stories that serve as my primary data set. I do not think they can differentiate the spin from the reality - and in fairness to them, I do not see how they could. So, like Descartes, I am in quite the epistemological quandary here. But unlike old René, I do not have an insightful axiom like "I think therefore I am" to build knowledge upon.

I am usually very hesitant to quote myself, but I wanted to bring this point back because it is really salient. Scanning across the major insider Washington publications this afternoon - I noted these headlines:

What's the status of the public option in the House?
-Politico: "Pelosi lacks votes for most sweeping public option"
-The Hill: "Pelosi calls an emergency meeting on push for 'robust' public option"
-Roll Call: "Pelosi Still Pushing for 'Robust' Public Option"
-Politico (again): Pelosi publicly whipping on robust public option

What does Obama think about the public option?
-Roll Call: "Obama Expresses Skepticism to Senators on Public Option"
-The Hill: "Obama working on getting Senate votes for public option"

Remember, all of this is happening after we thought the public option was dead but now it's back...AND after we thought Obama was abandoning the public option but then he gave it a solid endorsement in his September address to Congress.

Also, will moderate Democrats vote on cloture for a bill they disagree with?
-The Hill suggests maybe so.
-Congress Daily suggests maybe not.

This is like a merry-go-round. Around and around we go. The reason? All of this is happening behind closed doors, and public access to the debate is highly constricted. These journalists are doing good work getting as much information as possible out of Democratic leaders, but so long as the debate remains behind closed doors, we just can't be sure about what will be in the final House and Senate bills.

Something similar happened with Senate Finance over the summer. They were making good work, making good work, making goo..and then the whole thing collapsed. You just never know when legislators are meeting secretly and our source of information are press reports.

-Jay Cost

Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, and the Health Care Filibuster

Ezra Klein had an interesting read on the health care negotiations taking place in the Senate. Noting that Olympia Snowe is now one of the few participants in the high-level talks, Klein hypothesizes:

Democrats really want this bill to be bipartisan -- to the point that they're giving the Republican a space in the negotiations equivalent to the chairmen of the two relevant committees. Indeed, I wouldn't be shocked if this perk had been negotiated in advance of Snowe's vote yesterday.

This shifts the room's balance of power substantially: The negotiations were previously confined to one liberal Democrat and one centrist Democrat. Now they'll be between one liberal Democrat, one centrist Democrat, and one moderate Republican. In practice, this is likely to mean that Baucus will have something of a trump card against Dodd. If there's a particularly thorny dispute, and Snowe weighs in strongly alongside Baucus, it's hard to imagine Reid siding with Dodd, except in the most extraordinary of cases.

This is a distinct possibility. Given the importance attached to bipartisanship, can they exclude her even if they wanted to? How would it look if they told their sole Republican supporter to take a walk?

Of course, we cannot know for sure why Snowe is involved, given the secrecy of these closed door negotiations. I'd raise another possibility that I think is worth considering. It is not incompatible with Klein's suggestion - and I offer it speculatively because nobody outside the Senate knows anything for sure.

Let's assume that the Democrats have decided not to pursue reconciliation (at least not yet), and they are looking for a 60-vote coalition in the Senate. In that situation, you'd want the chamber's marginal legislator in the talks. He/she is the 60th vote, the one to break a Republican filibuster. By definition, if the marginal legislator supports the final product, the final product passes. At first blush, having Snowe in the room makes no sense. To get past a filibuster, all you need are the 60 Democrats. Wouldn't somebody like Ben Nelson or Blanche Lincoln be the marginal legislator? Snowe would presumably be the 61st legislator, thus making her vote nice for appearances but not crucial. Right?

Not necessarily. I'd note with interest this video snippet that has been making the rounds.

If Lieberman is a "no" on the Finance bill, then presumably he'd be a "no" for a more liberal bill produced by melding the Finance bill with the HELP bill. He's already on record as a "no" on the public option, and in this clip he sounds distinctly Republican in his talk of scaling back the size of the reforms.

But why would Lieberman be a "no" to the Finance, HELP, and House bills? After all, he is still a Democrat, even if he qualifies it with the adjective "Independent."

Lieberman will be 70 years old in 2012, the year he is up for reelection. Let's assume he wants another term. What might his electoral calculation be?

Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that the left is going to target him once again. They may or may not be able to field a viable candidate, but Lieberman would be smart to operate under the assumption that they will. Lieberman fended off a challenge from his left flank in 2006, defeating Ned Lamont in the general election by 10%. However, GOP nominee Alan Schlesinger won just 9% of the vote. In fact, 18% of all voters were self-identified Republicans who voted for Lieberman. 14% of all voters were self-identified conservatives who voted for Lieberman. Simply put, Lieberman won that 2006 race in large part because conservative Republicans voted for him, not Schlesinger.

This means that Lieberman now has to win over voters well to the right of his old electoral coalition from when he was a typical Democrat. Losing the support of the left means he must go looking for conservatives, whom he managed to find in sufficient numbers three years ago. So, suppose Lieberman antagonizes conservatives in his home state so much that they get behind a more viable candidate in 2012. That Republican wins 20% of the vote rather than 9%. If the Democratic nominee can replicate Lamont's 39%, Lieberman would lose.

This might explain Lieberman's unequivocal "no" on the Finance bill in the above clip. If he is worried that a vote with Obama on health care will damage him with his right flank, then he has an incentive to oppose the efforts.

The challenge for Lieberman, of course, is that he now has two flanks to keep happy. He has a right flank that could drift over to a Republican, and he still has a left flank that could drift over to somebody like Lamont or Richard Blumenthal. That's the challenge when you are the centrist candidate in a three-way race. Maybe Lieberman's calculation here is that, given the soft support among voters for the reform efforts, his best bet is to endorse reform generally but oppose these bills. Meanwhile, he votes with the Democrats on less divisive issues to lock down his remaining Democratic supporters. In that situation, maybe his Republican backers won't turn on him, and the moderate and Independent-leaning Democrats will not hold his "no" vote on health care against him. The progressives, of course, will continue to hate him - but they're no longer in his coalition.

I'm not saying that this strategy would work. By sitting between the two parties, Lieberman's reelection prospects are highly uncertain, to say the least. It's possible that, when push comes to shove, he just cannot win reelection from this centrist position, no matter how hard he tries. At a minimum, it is fair to say that Lieberman's switch from Democrat to "Independent" Democrat makes him more dependent on conservatives for reelection than he has been in previous cycles. If he is planning to run again in 2012, he has to figure out a way to keep them happy without alienating the moderate Democrats who stuck with him against Lamont. Maybe this is his solution to that tricky problem.

If so, then Olympia Snowe might be indeed the 60th, marginal legislator. That could explain why she is in the room with Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, and Max Baucus.

Like I said, this is speculative. I have used the words "if," "maybe," "perhaps," and "suppose" quite a bit in this post. I just offer this as one theory out of many plausible explanations that could account for what is happening behind the closed doors in the Senate

-Jay Cost

The Baucus Bill Is a Go...For Now

The Baucus bill is set to pass the Senate Finance Committee today, which will be good for Democrats in helping manage the news cycle. The media will score this a win, even though everybody expected it would pass. Plus, I'm not sure why George Stephanopoulos would have pegged the odds of Snowe voting yea at less than 50%. I did not have a doubt in my mind that she would support it. This is a vote to move the process forward, and thus keep Olympia Snowe in the game. Case in point: Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley are set to vote no today, which will likely signal their end in determining the course of the legislative process. They'll get their floor votes, the opportunity to offer amendments, and that will probably be that. Snowe's yes vote, on the other hand, purchases for her the right to remain a key player. Snowe is one of those senators who can almost always be counted on to find the political center in the Senate, wherever it may be in real terms, because that is where the action is. Arlen Specter used to be the master at sniffing out the central ground...at least until Joe Sestak forced him to tack to the left.

Still, the Baucus bill is a highly problematic piece of legislation - yesterday's PricewaterhouseCoopers report, sponsored by the American Health Insurance Providers, is a great case in point of the problems it has. I noted last week as regards the Baucus sausage that there was a peculiar left-right coalition aligned in opposition to it. Here's more evidence of that. We have the AHIP set to lobby against the Baucus bill, and ditto the labor unions!

I'd affiliate myself with the sentiments expressed by Patterico here on the PwC/AHIP report. It misses the point entirely to discard the the analysis as political: that's clearly what it is meant to be! If the industry groups that had been playing along with the White House start breaking away, and worse yet start playing politics against reform, that's a net loss for supporters of the reform efforts. Additionally, it's not surprising in the least to see Republicans not embrace the AHIP report. If AHIP is signaling it is going to start moving against the reforms, why not let them take the lead on it? Why affiliate yourselves with the health insurers? You're not going to help them and you're only going to hurt yourselves, considering how unpopular they are.

The challenge that the Democrats faced in the summer remains: can they find a compromise that (a) wins 218 votes in the House; (b) wins 60 votes in the Senate; (c) is not some Frankensteinian monster that scares off the broad middle, which Mickey Kaus has cleverly taken to calling the congressional "id." I didn't have an answer to that question in August, and the Baucus vote does not help me answer it today.

I will say that the Democrats seem highly intent on passing a bill, and leaders are clearly trying to develop a sense of momentum. That's good news for reform efforts. Of course, momentum is only a real thing when we are discussing Newtonian physics. It's simply a metaphor in politics. I think it refers to a sense of urgency and necessity. Their minds are sharp and focused in search of a compromise because the party's reputation is on the line. It needs to get something done. Yet momentum - at least as I have defined it here - does not get around the basic collective action dilemma that this highly diverse political party faces. Are the progressives willing to sacrifice a public option for the sake of the party's reputation? Alternatively, is Blanche Lincoln willing to sacrifice her job by supporting a public option for the sake of the party's reputation? That's the core challenge. One side, possibly both, will have to bend. There are other tensions on how to pay for it, mandates (possibly), and so on.

We might not have an answer to these questions for some time. We certainly are not going to be able to count on reliable updates about the legislative process until final bills are produced, seeing as how the bill drafting is now almost entirely on one side of the aisle and entirely behind the closed doors of leadership offices. It's up to Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate - working in their own offices with fellow Democrats - to find the compromise position that has so far eluded them. I expect reports to be very, very bullish about things, regardless of whether or not they are making real progress. Maybe they will find that common ground; maybe they won't. We'll just have to wait and see.

In fact, the Baucus vote indicates the Democrats' smart strategy of circling the wagons and keeping their disagreements in private (for now). All 13 Senate Finance Democrats voted for it, even though at least three of them - Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden on the left and Blanche Lincoln in the center - have real concerns with it. Those were probably votes for the party, and I expect Democrats to (mostly) stick together so long as the wheeling-and-dealing is underway.

-Jay Cost

The Baucus Sausage

So, the CBO score of the Baucus bill has the mainstream media declaring this a victory for the Democrats' health care efforts. The New York Times leads the way:

Health Care Bill Gets Green Light in Cost Analysis

The Senate Finance Committee legislation to revamp the health care system would provide coverage to 29 million uninsured Americans but would still pare future federal deficits by slowing the growth of spending on medical care, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday....

Democrats rejoiced. Several wavering Democrats and one Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, had said they would be influenced by the budget office report.

Is this a win? Perhaps, depending upon your perspective. If the goal is to win a news cycle, advancing the preferred narrative about the inevitability of legislative success, then yes. It's definitely a win. Since the mainstream media rules the news cycle, it's no surprise that it is partial to that view, and would count it a victory as the Times does.

But dig a little deeper and you'll notice a peculiar phenomenon. If there was to be an up-or-down vote on the Baucus bill, my guess is that it would be defeated by a left-right coalition. I base that conclusion on a perusal of the progressive and conservative blogs, which generally consider the Baucus bill to be horrible. So, in terms of actually finding a solution to the nation's health care problems, I'd say no. It's not much of a win.

Let's drill this down a bit. This is Jon Walker from FireDogLake:

Leave aside the lack of a public option and the fact that the weak exchanges are probably unworkable. And, for now, let's ignore the poorly designed regulator framework and the huge give away to PhRMA. (I know, big stuff to leave aside). Let's just look at Baucus's bill from 10,000 feet.

For starters, being "covered" under Baucus's reform really is no guaranty of financial security. The yearly cap on out-of-pocket expenses for a family is $11,900 (and that is not counting the cost of premiums, which could be double that). How many middle income families have the financial reserves to take that kind of hit if a spouse needs serious medical treatments over the course of a few years? This bill would reduce--but will not end--one of the greatest shames in our nation. That of "under-insured" Americans forced into medical bankruptcy.

The other major problem is that there is no major reduction in the number of uninsured until 2014. It will be roughly 44 months after the bill is signed before we start seeing a noticeable reduction in the number of uninsured. There is not one but two elections before anything really gets started. Looking closely at the new CBO report, it won't be until 2014 or 2015 that we start seeing a serious reduction in the number of uninsured.

Even after the bill is in full swing, around 2015, the number of uninsured who will be "covered" is only 27-29 million. Even after reform is fully implemented their will still be 24-25 million people in this country without health insurance, a full 9% of our population. Ignoring undocumented immigrants you are still talking about 17 million Americans without health insurance. This bill will not produce universal health care. It will not even produce near universal health care. After this bill goes into effect we will need another almost equally massive reform effort if we want to get to universal health coverage.

Walker's piece is entitled: "Baucus Health Care Bill: In a Word, Awful." It's pretty clear why he thinks that. The Baucus bill simply is not doing enough to keep costs down for the average American family. It also fails to expand coverage far enough. Walker also seems concerned that future Congresses will have an opportunity to tinker with the bill without affecting anybody's actual coverage because of the delayed start. He is right to list this as a worry: each Congress is sovereign and cannot be bound by the actions of a past one.

Walker's piece also hints at a point I have made before: many on the left hate the idea of an individual mandate without a public option. Progressives see that as a big sloppy kiss to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. This is why Obama's continued insistence that the public option is only one factor has generally been ignored...by both sides.

Lest we think that the progressive bloggers do not have representation on these points in the Congress itself, here is Anthony Weiner's response to the bill:

"There's no public option, since there's no real cost containment in the Baucus bill," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC. "So frankly that big problem goes un-addressed which is why the bill probably won't be taken very seriously from here on out."

Now let's tune to the right side of the dial. What do we hear? Complaints about the huge, hidden costs of the Baucus bill that conservatives think will ultimately hit the average American square in the jaw. Keith Hennessey rips the Baucus plan a new one. Among his many critiques, he points out that there is a strong likelihood that - claims of deficit reduction aside - the bill will increase the costs of total health care spending in the United States. So much for bending the cost curve. Hennessey also points out that the bill would create an indefensible inequality: those who receive their insurance from private companies would end up receiving smaller subsidies than those who get their insurance through the exchanges. He goes on to suggest that this would create perverse incentives for individuals and employers.

Over at National Review, James Capretta argues that the Baucus bill is full of gimmicks, essentially "shoehorn(ing) a $1.5 to $2.0 trillion "universal coverage" scheme into an $830 billion sack. " It's replete with spending cuts that will not be made, plus it forces people to pay indirectly for the new layer of "regulations, taxes, and fees" through decreased wages, a point Hennessey makes as well. Greg Mankiw thinks the bill might mean an 80%+ marginal tax rate on workers between 100% and 200% of the poverty level.

So, the left and the right hate it. Strangely enough, they seem to have the same basic reason: average people are going to get squeezed. The left says that the bill does not do enough to keep their health care costs down. The right says the bill is going to reduce their disposable income.

God help us all if both sides are correct.

Therein lies another problem with omnibus bills such as this, and why I really fault the President for not lowering his sights. As I have noted many times, omnibus bills have a reduced chance of passage because they deal with so many issues, thus increasing the likelihood that a legislator will find a poison pill in there somewhere. But that's not the only problem. Suppose that there is a hypothetical bill that could pass: what will it look like? Will it be full of half-measures that are the product of political compromises, rather than a coherent attempt to deal with the problem in a straightforward manner? Will most legislators actually dislike it, and only support it for political purposes?

The recent suggestion that Obama and the Democratic majority need a bill - any bill - should give everybody (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) pause. When politicians start talking like that, they're signaling a willingness to sign onto a bill that might not actually fix the problems just so they can claim "success." As regards the Baucus bill, I'd note with interest that its key enthusiasts are Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe, and sundry House Blue Dogs. All of these legislators share the same quality: they are of a different party than their respective electorates. The Baucus bill might help them with their reelection efforts by minimizing the extent to which their voters are pissed off at them, but does that make it a good bill?

The challenge the Democrats have is finding some sort of compromise position that can unite the various factions of their diverse caucus. The concern I have is that said compromise is going to be an incoherent jumble that does not address the central challenges of American health care, and perhaps makes them more severe. That is the sense I get from reading the left and the right on the Baucus bill, which is - at least per the conceit of its designer - supposed to be "balanced." That might be good politics, but is it good policy? I'd say not this time. Whenever the left and the right agree on something, you can usually take that consensus to the bank. In this case, it means that the Baucus sausage just plain stinks.

-Jay Cost

How Close are the Democrats on Health Care Reform?

Some commentators have suggested that the Democrats are pretty close to finalizing a comprehensive bill on health care. But like Mickey Kaus, I am not as certain. Last week, I listed several questions I had about the bill's progress. Here's an update on that post, plus a few extra considerations.

What Happens When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object?

I saw this in the Huffington Post today:

The Blue Dog Coalition is engaged in a member-to-member whip operation in the House, beginning with a survey of its 52 lawmakers, to find out where they stand on critical health care issues. The principal focus is the public insurance option, but the canvass also touches on various tax and revenue increase proposals to pay for reform.

The pressure is being mounted after three House committees already passed reform bills and House Democratic leaders are working to merge them into a final floor package.

For the first time since they formed in 1995, the Blue Dogs have been out-organized by their liberal counterparts. The Congressional Progressive Caucus completed its first survey and began whipping back in the spring. They launched a final whip count last week that will be finished by Wednesday evening.

This does not seem like a beneficial development for reform efforts, in my opinion. You have one faction within the Democratic Party whipping in one direction, another whipping in the opposite direction. And we're supposed to be just six weeks out from a final bill? Importantly, I've not yet seen evidence that one side or the other is prepared to buckle. Until I do, I have to conclude that serious hurdles remain.

Relatedly, there are reports that Pelosi intends to push the House bill to the left. Is this a sign that the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) holds the most sway in the chamber? Or is it a reflection of her policy preferences? Either way, what happens during the conference process if the CPC remains staunch in its support of a robust public option?

Also, I have seen a lot of Baucus-blasting on the progressive blogs over the last few weeks. There has also been fighting between DailyKos and FireDogLake, on the one hand, and Blue Dog leader Jim Cooper on the other. That is not a positive sign. If Democrats are prepared to come together around a single measure, I have not seen a heck of a lot of evidence of it. It is quite possible that not just Republicans - but some faction of the Democratic Party - is going to be on the outside looking in if a bill is passed.

Is There a Compromise Position?

I do not know of one yet. I've heard a lot of talk about "triggers" for a public option. This seems to work for approximately two people: Rahm Emanuel and Olympia Snow. That's not enough to pass a bill through the Congress! Nancy Pelosi sure does not like the trigger idea. Leaders might find common ground - heck, they might have found it just now, as I am writing this! - the point is that I have not seen anything yet that can unite these factions.

The public option is not the only thorny issue. Another one is whether they can produce a bill that does what the progressives want without alienating the budget hawks who will be needed for passage. This is also going to be a factor in any reconciliation process. Reconciliation bills that increase the budget deficit by even a small amount cannot get through.

What about time frames?

The Senate Finance Committee has blown deadline after deadline, and with more than 500 amendments on its table - it looks as though it is going to blow yet another one. Democrats are talking about a 6-week window for getting a bill through the process, and Mickey Kaus has a reasonable explanation for why:

"Orszag Sees Health Law in Six Weeks" (Bloomberg): OMB Director Peter Orszag didn't really predict a health care law in six weeks--he said "The goal would be, yes, over the next six weeks or so, maybe sooner,." We know all about "goals." But the 6-week frame is not an accident, because something happens in 6 weeks: elections. If Democrats lose big gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, that could produce a new wave of jitters among already skittish Congressional swing Democrats.

More delays will push the bills past these off-off-year elections, and Kaus is right. Bad results in those elections could make nervous Democrats all the more nervous.

Like Kaus, I am suspicious of these time estimates. The fact that Democratic leaders have still not made clear whether they are planning to use reconciliation or the normal legislative process suggests that (a) they still do not know who will support what and/or (b) they still do not know what will actually be in the bill. How then can they give us precise estimates?

What about seniors?

Last week I questioned how the public will react to these proposals, and what that will mean to the legislative process. Gallup has produced some data that helps us specify this question: what does it mean that senior citizens are opposed to this bill? As I have written before, seniors are a significant force in midterm elections. What happens if senior opposition stiffens?

Do we really know anything?

One of the problems with writing about Congressional policymaking as it happens is that a lot of the real meaty stuff happens behind closed doors, and leaders who give "progress reports" do not have an incentive to offer accurate assessments. Instead, they are better off giving overly bullish reports, i.e. spin. So, here is the trouble I find myself in. I suspect that most of the members who speak to the press are trying to spin me. I also do not trust the journalists producing the news stories that serve as my primary data set. I do not think they can differentiate the spin from the reality - and in fairness to them, I do not see how they could. So, like Descartes, I am in quite the epistemological quandary here. But unlike old René, I do not have an insightful axiom like "I think therefore I am" to build knowledge upon.

In other words, the conditions of uncertainty are severe, to say the least. That's why I still have nothing but questions. And as for my prediction for a comprehensive bill passing...how about this: I'll put it at 50% with a standard deviation of 25%, for a practical range of 25% to 75%.

That's what you might call a punt!

-Jay Cost

Polling on Health Care Reform

Over at Pollster, Charles Franklin performs some fascinating analysis on public opinion on health care. He puts together a series of trend lines based upon different "smoothing" techniques, which cut down on statistical noise to varying degrees. Despite all these different methods, he still finds the same basic trendline:


This shows that the country is now about evenly divided on the various health care proposals working their way through Congress. Support for the bill dipped during the summer, but has risen to pull about even with opposition.

This is not a great result for proponents of the current reforms bills. The trick is that it has to pass through the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. It's an inferential fallacy to assume that because a bare majority of respondents support the proposals (supposing they do), a bare majority of members of Congress would, too.

To appreciate this, consider the following histogram. It outlines the distribution of Obama's share of the 2008 vote by congressional district.

Obama Vote by Congressional District.jpg

Obviously, congressional districts are far from uniform! The modal category here is actually soft support for McCain, where Obama won between 40% and 50% of the vote. Yet the political battle over health care will inevitably be fought in those districts that softly supported Obama. According to Franklin's analysis, health care reform is polling slightly under Obama's vote share in 2008. So, those districts where Obama won narrowly, not decisively, are probably where the main political battle will occur. It's reasonable to assume that if the nation is now evenly divided on the reform measures, those districts taken all together are divided, too. Many of them should be divided internally as well.

This highlights a core problem the Democrats have in the Congress. They win a lot of districts by blowout margins. This makes them safe for the party, but it means that their voters are packed into relatively few districts, suggesting that to pass large-scale policy reforms such as the one being debated now, the Democrats have to find support in districts where Republicans do well, even in bad years for the GOP like 2008.

This problem becomes all the more salient when we consider the practical playing field - namely, that the bills working their way through the Congress are unlikely to get any Republican support. If the Democrats plan to pass it all by themselves, there is going to be quite a bit of pressure on many members.

Obama Vote by Congressional District Democratic Districts Only.jpg

As we can see, there are a lot of Democrats in McCain-voting districts. So, if it is the case that the McCain voting districts are opposed to the health care bills, the Democrats are going to need at least a few representatives to vote against their constituents to get the bill through the House. That is a huge request to make, especially considering how salient this issue is. It's never a good idea to vote against your district on an issue that your constituents are paying close attention to.

Up to this point in the analysis, we've assumed that support/opposition to the bills mirrors the 2008 vote. It likely does not follow the 2008 vote perfectly, and there are probably at least a few notable deviations. The problem is, we just do not know how support breaks down by district. We lack reliable polling on this front. Importantly, many members probably lack such knowledge as well. Polls are expensive to contract and polling by congressional district is problematic. So, many members likely do not have a systematic read on their districts, the kind of knowledge that can be acquired via scientific surveying. They could, of course, rely on methodologically questionable analyses that "find" that certain reform measures are overwhelmingly popular, but I would not suggest that.

Instead, they have to rely on other metrics - like telephone calls, emails, attendance at town halls, and so on. This is why - even if the August town halls did not move public opinion against the bills - they were probably still quite consequential, as they gave members a sense of how their districts were feeling about the reform measures. Because turnout in congressional midterms is always less than presidential elections, even if those town hall outbursts represented a minority position in a district, it still cannot be taken lightly. After all, in a midterm election a member can be tossed from office by an opposition bloc that, during a presidential year, would constitute a minority.

While Senators have better access to polling, and therefore they probably have a more systematic perspective on their districts, the health care bills still face many of the same challenges in the Senate. This is the distribution of Obama's vote by state.

Obama Vote By State.jpg

Again, we can conclude here that the main locus of debate will be in states that went for Obama softly. And when we look at states with Democratic Senators - we see basically the same thing as we did when we looked at the House.

Obama State Dems.jpg

Again, for a bill to become law, Democrats are going to need some members from McCain states to support it, unless they can pull in some Republicans. This again suggests that an even split in support for health care is more of a hindrance than a help in getting a bill through.

-Jay Cost

Five Questions on Health Care

The Democrats in Congress have reconvened to continue work on health care. Their ultimate success or failure will hinge on how several questions are answered. Here are five that I'll be asking.

1. How will the legislative math work? I have yet to see a proposal that unites the various factions of the Democratic Party in the Congress, so the question becomes how can party leaders get the 218 votes in the House then 60 in the Senate? The fact that there is still no clear signal on reconciliation, the principal benefit of which would be to reduce the burden from 60 to 51, is an indication that the leadership itself does not quite know how the votes will line up.

As of now, the conventional wisdom among the punditocracy is that the public option will be dropped as a way to pick up party moderates, under the assumption that the progressive caucus will go along for the ride. But will they? It is highly unlikely that all of them will. Most of them would presumably be willing to grant at least some small concessions to add votes - but how far are they willing to go? That depends upon individual legislators themselves, which means that - until you get to 218 in the House and 60/51 in the Senate - every concession the leadership makes had better add more moderates than it loses progressives. This is when legislative calculus begins to look like actual calculus!

There are indications that a compromise will be a hard pill for many progressives to swallow. This is Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, on the compromise coming out of the Senate Finance Committee:

I think the product that has come out from [Max Baucus's] committee and himself, I really believe that it has no legitimacy in this debate. It's an insider product. It's there to protect the industry. It is not there to try to look for that middle ground. He is key in holding up deliberations, has been key in trying to work on a consensus, but everything you see in his legislation had to be approved by the industry before it became part of the plan...I consider Senator Baucus's proposal to be essentially an insider trader move to protect an industry and really doesn't have validity at all, both political validity or content validity.[Emphasis Mine]

This is not the first time I have seen a progressive House member blast Baucus. John Conyers took a shot at him a few months ago, and Baucus does not appear to be terribly popular on the progressive sites.

The progressive caucus is going to do a head count this week to find out how many members agree with Grijalva on the following point:

And, you know, this political line in the sand that we have drawn is not a gimmick. We feel very strongly about it. We believe that it's not only good public policy that we're advocating, it's good political policy, because our base really needs to see its party and its leadership come through with a commitment that was made in this era of change. And this is one of them. Health reform is the biggie. And I think the progressives, while there will be an effort to label us, I think we're going to work hard these next two weeks to build not only the internal support that we need for the public plan, but, more importantly, the external support to also put pressure on our colleagues. [Emphasis Mine]

The House leadership can afford to lose about 40 of their members before a bill fails in the lower chamber, assuming no Republican votes (which at this point seems reasonable). Recently, 57 members of the House Progressive Caucus indicated that they would not vote for a bill that lacks "a robust public option". The big question is: how many of those members are making a credible threat? That the White House is sending the President out to campaign strongly for the public option just this weekend is a sign that the answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem.

2. What's the common ground on the public option? Like the last query, I do not think the answer to this question is as obvious as it first appears. We might initially think it is something like Baucus's Senate Finance plan, but I would refer again to the progressive reaction to the Baucus plan. Grijalva goes out of his way there to suggest that the Baucus plan is not common ground.

In general I am not sure how progressives are going to view any kind of compromise bill that attracts the moderates. Their attitude seems to be one of deep suspicion of the for-profit health industry. Take away the public option, but retain employer and/or individual mandates, and that looks like a big boon to the insurance companies. They might consider that an outright defeat. In that case, the normal calculations of compromise - you get half a loaf versus a whole loaf, but you're still better off - would not apply. Progressives might think they have not gotten even half a loaf at all!

This points to one big problem with doing comprehensive reforms like this. Different factions have different diagnoses for what ails the system - and when a comprehensive bill is introduced, it inevitably favors one view over another. If the progressives' view is on the losing end, they might think the bill does not do much of anything. And remember: the President wants to be the "last" to tackle this issue - meaning that the stakes are very high. So, if the progressives think the bill will further solidify the insurance industry's hold over health care, they might bolt.

3. Can the party come together around a cost estimate? Obama's speech last week helped to unite the party, but it was a campaign style speech that did not even try to resolve the issues that have actually divided it (and forced the President to make the speech in the first place!). The public option is such an issue, but it is just one part of a broader divide among the various factions in the caucus.

Another issue is the price tag, and relateldy how it is funded. Can the leadership put together a bill that accomplishes policy goals to the progressives' satisfaction without exploding the deficit, which will drive away moderates? The first attempts at this - the House tri-committee bill and the Senate HELP committee bill - were unsuccessful. Again, progressives seem not to like the Senate Finance Committee outline, either. So, the search for a Goldilocks-style compromise - neither too hot nor too cold, but just right - continues.

4. How much work is left to be done? Last week, the President repeated the oft-quoted notion that there is agreement on 80% of an overhaul. That may be so, but it does not really answer the question. Historically speaking, the Democrats can always agree on the initial 80%; it's that final 20% that tends to trip them up!

Intra-party disagreements almost always happen behind closed doors; their public pronouncements tend to be little more than spin, so I don't even have a sense on this one. Here are things I am wondering. What items do they need to find agreement on? Do they at least have basic ideas about how to get to an agreement? How much from the original bills can be salvaged? Have they made positive progress on that 20%, or have they spent the last few months merely learning what will not work? Above all, can they get it done "in time?"

"In time" is in scare quotes because it's a purely political concept, which means the leadership might redefine it as it sees fit. Indeed, the timeline has already been altered once - there were no votes taken in July, as was initially demanded. The new deadline is Thanksgiving. There might be too much work left to do to meet that deadline, which in turn would suggest it might have to be pushed back again. Can it be? That would put the vote for passage in the second session of the 111th Congress, during the midterm election year. That could be dicey, which means the answer to this question is a politically consequential one.

5. How will the public react, and how will legislators react to that reaction? Clearly, the public response to the House tri-committee bill and the Senate HELP committee bill was less than positive. The town hall protests reflected the strong opposition of the right, and the President's sagging poll numbers indicated that the broad middle had its doubts, too. How will the public react to the new proposal, once it is actually produced? That's uncertain, to say the least. Few people expected the reaction we saw this summer, so who knows what will come next. Additionally, will moderate legislators want an opportunity to take the new bill back to their districts to gauge public reaction? Will the leadership give them an opportunity?

Relatedly, how will the right respond? It has essentially been shut out of this process - that agreement on 80% is agreement among Democrats to the exclusion of Republicans - but conservatives have nevertheless found ways back into the public debate. This weekend's "tea party" protest in Washington indicates at the least that the right is worked up enough to take to the streets - something that historically is a hallmark of leftwing activism. So, it will be interesting to see how the right attempts to inject its views into the process, and what result that will produce.

Final point on this. When gauging the legislative reaction, it's important not to commit a fallacy of division. For instance, if support for the bill is split 50-50 in a national poll - then you can probably expect that more Louisianans oppose it than favor it. This will affect the political calculations of Senator Landrieu and Representative Melancon, inclining them against the bill. Generally, the strong Democratic presence in red state Senate seats means that 50-50 might actually mean something less when it comes time to tally up the votes in the upper chamber.

-Jay Cost

Obama Votes "Present"

In my judgment President Obama's address last night was little more than a campaign speech with the Congress as the set piece. Evaluated from that perspective, it was a success. But from the perspective of finding a policy solution - i.e. actual governance - it contributed nothing to health care reform.

The President had to give yesterday's speech for a simple, straightforward reason: his party is divided on a few key issues, above all the public option. This is what forced the delay through August, at which point the opposition was able to seize the microphone from government leaders and drive their poll numbers down.

To ameliorate this dilemma, the President chose to give last night's speech. In it, he:

(1) Focused on items that unite the Democrats.
(2) Blasted Republicans while praising bipartisanship.
(3) Indulged in rhetorical flights of fancy that have become his stock in trade.

Each of these items contributed some aspect to the ostensible goal of rallying the Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents. It probably did that, at least to an extent.

However, it failed to address the reason for their doldrums. Democrats need rallying because of internal divisions over actual policy disagreements. President Obama did not deal with those divisions. When you strip away the setting, the soaring rhetoric, the poetic cadences, and all the rest, you're left with the criticism that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain leveled at him through all of last year: he voted present.

The following is the bottom line on health care, as best I can tell. The progressives are deeply skeptical of the insurance companies, the drug companies, and all for-profit entities that provide health care. They believe that any reforms lacking a "robust" public option will enable them to continue to place profitability over care. Many progressives consider the public option to be a compromise from the single-payer system that they prefer.

This idea is a non-starter to those who are deeply skeptical of increased government activity. There are a lot of these people in the Blue Dog districts, which tend to be in the South, the Border States along the Ohio River, and the Great Plains. So, anything approaching a "robust public option" is simply too much for them. Their representatives are rightly concerned that a yea vote on a public option will cost them their jobs.

Meanwhile, Republicans have already been forced to walk away from the table because of all sorts of other items. As a rhetorical point, it is all well and good for Democrats to blast Republicans for not cooperating in the process, but that is tantamount to criticizing them for not being Democrats. Let's be serious: does anybody really think the bulk of the GOP - the party of William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan - will sign on to such a massive increase in governmental regulation of private activity? This is what makes most Republicans who they are. You can add goodies like tort reform trial programs, but that is like putting chocolate frosting on chopped liver as far as most Republicans are concerned.

So, where does that leave the Democrats? To get the requisite number of votes, the leaders have to cobble together a majority coalition in which some party moderates and liberals likely do not participate. This is an extremely tricky procedure. It's not as straightforward as saying something like, "Kathy Dahlkemper (D - Erie, PA) is the median voter. So, let's write the bill for her." Doing that might lose the left flank, so the leaders have to watch them as well to make sure they are still on board. They have to do this individually in both chambers, then all at once after the conference bill is produced. Additionally, there might be no second chances here. If they invest their efforts in a bill that ultimately falls short - there might not be sufficient willpower among the rank-and-file to start again.

As I said, the key issue appears to be the public option. This is why triggers and co-ops are being discussed. Leaders are looking to water down the public option enough so that the requisite number of moderates can be brought on board, but not so much that the left flank leaves the coalition. If they cannot find some middle ground, they are not going to get a comprehensive reform package - seeing as how they have already lost almost all of the Republican Party.

With this in mind, here's the question: what did last night's speech contribute to finding a solution? I'd say that the answer is nothing. The President (once again) refused to get his hands dirty on this issue. He praised the public option to the hilt, rhetoric intended for the progressives, then he hinted that it could be ditched, rhetoric intended for the moderates. At some point in the policymaking process, a choice will have to be made. It was not made last night, which means that this was a governing opportunity lost.

President Obama clearly aspires to be a great president, like FDR and Lincoln. Last night he framed the health care debate by confidently placing himself at the end of a list of Presidents that begins with a leader so consequential his visage is on Mount Rushmore. Here's something he should know about the great ones, who have a few key features in common: they know their political parties like the backs of their hands, and they know how to guide them to policy success, much as a good business executive guides her employees to profitability. If this President does not learn how to manage the factions within his own party - he will not be remembered as a great President. "Rah-rah" speeches such as last night's are sure to be part of any good management strategy, but they are far from sufficient. The President is going to have to do more.

-Jay Cost

Obama To Give Historic Speech...Again

Another historic, monumental speech from the 44th President of the United States. He's averaging about one of these every three weeks now, isn't he?

To say that this President is overexposed is an understatement. He was overexposed six months ago when he let his kids appear on the cover of Jann Wenner's trashy supermarket celeb mag. I'm not sure what prefix to use, but "over-" does not sufficiently describe a President who is now doing 30-second spots for George Lopez's new late night show on TBS. Seriously.

What exactly is this speech supposed to do? Let's ditch the metaphors - "game changer," "ninth inning" - and use words that point to actual things: health care reform is in trouble because of differences among factions of the Democratic Party. The compromises that moderates like Ben Nelson require are apparently too much for liberals like Anthony Weiner to accept. How is a speech supposed to overcome this? It would either have to: (a) propose a third-way solution that both sides can agree to, or (b) convince one side or the other that it needs to adjust its stance.

Should we really expect a speech to do that, considering all the other things the President intends to do in it?

I'd say no. I think this will be little more than a change in tone - perhaps from cool/slightly mocking Obama to angry/forceful Obama. From the looks of it, the President is still planning to make all the same points he's been hammering for months. He'll ask for bipartisan cooperation while remaining cagey on the public option (a deal breaker for 99% of the Republican caucus). He will again insist the time for debate is over and the time for action is now. He'll make a not-terribly-compelling case about how this somehow relates to the current economic morass, even though the benefits do not kick in for years. He'll fearlessly stand up to Republican straw men, who never offer anything except disingenuous attacks.

Why is the White House doing this? I think there are two answers that kind of relate to each other.

First, it has begun to believe its own spin that the President is good at giving game changing speeches. But he isn't really. Nobody is. If the game could change because of a speech, the game would constantly be changing because lots of people can give a decent speech, especially when they have a TelePrompTer. President Obama is a compelling speaker to a relatively narrow segment of the country - namely, African Americans and white social liberals. He inspired them to support his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton - but other voters (including many in his own party) were harder to win over. His Philadelphia speech on race was no Cooper Union; it merely distracted attention from the main question of why he spent so many years in that church. His numbers still fell, and he struggled through the rest of the primaries, even losing South Dakota on the day he declared victory. He then gave big speeches in Europe and Denver, but it was only thanks to the financial panic of last September that he had a breakthrough.

Still, his speechifying seems to give some people a thrill up the leg - and the idea that he's not just a good speaker, but a game changing speaker, has become conventional wisdom. I think the White House believes that this is actually true.

Second, it does not know what else to do. It looks like Congress is at something less than square one. There is no passable compromise that has been proposed - nothing that can win enough votes in the center without losing the left flank. But now the "Gang of Six" has basically broken up, public approval has tanked, moderates are scared, and if there isn't bad blood on the Democratic side of the aisle there is at least a lot of finger pointing. If Humpty Dumpty breaks and you don't know how to put him back together - why not give a speech and boldly proclaim how important it is to put him back together?

As I wrote last week, I think he has to scale this proposal back. Rome was not built in a day, after all. I think he should propose some insurance reforms that can garner the level of support needed in the Senate - winning over Republicans like Grassley, Voinovich, Collins but losing DeMint, Coburn, and Inhofe. If he would just lower his sights a bit, stop grasping for that once-in-a-lifetime overhaul of 1/7th of the United States economy - he could win the kind of big bipartisan victory he had talked about during the campaign.

One thing this might do is end the internal battle in his own party. By demanding comprehensive reform, the President has raised the stakes, perhaps too high. The liberal intractability on the public option is completely understandable. If this is "the moment" for health care reform, then it is imperative that they get their key policy goals accomplished. If that doesn't happen now, they cannot expect that to happen anytime soon (if ever). But what they require is simply too much for moderate Democrats, especially those in McCain- and Bush-voting districts. If the President scaled back his ambitions, the final bill would not be as far to the left as the liberals like, but since it is not comprehensive they could at least plan to fight for the public option another day. Then, Obama could pick up enough moderates to pass it, and he could declare victory.

Incidentally, this is how most legislation gets passed in the Congress.

-Jay Cost

Amateur Hour at the White House

I just about fell out of my chair yesterday when I read this in the Washington Post.

President Obama's advisers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unprepared for the intraparty rift that occurred over the fate of a proposed public health insurance program, a firestorm that has left the White House searching for a way to reclaim the initiative on the president's top legislative priority.

This confirms a suspicion I have had for some time, and made clear a few weeks ago: Democratic leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill have only recently begun to take seriously the internal divisions within their own party.

Frankly, I am stunned that they would be caught off guard by this. How could they not have anticipated this? How could they possibly have been surprised that the left and right flanks of the party would not see eye to eye?

To explain my utter, complete astonishment at this bone-headed mistake, I need a visual aid. The following is courtesy of Google Maps. It marks the district offices of four types of congressmen:

(1) Democratic House committee chairmen are marked with blue pinpoints.
(2) House leaders and chairmen closely involved with health care are marked with red crosses.
(3) The top 40 Democratic House members in McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow bubbles.
(4) Committee chairmen from the McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow pinpoints.

Here's the map:

Leaders Versus Marginals.jpg

As you can see, coastal liberals dominate the leadership positions. California has six of the 24 leadership positions I have delineated. Another seven are located roughly within the megapolis that stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Meanwhile, those marginal members are clustered in the South and the Border States, with a few sprinkled across the Great Plains and then into Arizona.

This is a stark visual representation of the divide within the Democratic Party. We can clearly see the source of the problem. Liberal leaders from the coasts were given wide latitude by the White House to write these bills - and, unsurprisingly, they delivered products their fellow liberals love (or at least like). But the moderate and conservative Democrats - whose votes are needed for passage yet who run the risk of defeat next fall should the broad middle of the country sour on the reform efforts - weren't fully consulted, and don't like the bills. Hence, the internal friction - which corresponds pretty well with age-old sectional divisions in the party (more on that in a moment).

It was always going to be a challenge to find something that the moderates could stomach yet the liberals don't think is too watered down. That, more than anything else, was destined to be the highest hurdle for health care reform to jump. Amazingly, the White House waited until after the liberal House bills were published - and all the attending fallout - to take this challenge seriously, or even notice it! Because of this error, it is now in a substantially weaker position to find that middle ground. The liberals already have their bills on the table, so they are at least somewhat committed to them (as the Progressive Caucus has been saying for weeks, and as the WaPo article suggests). The moderates and conservatives are at home getting yelled at by angry constituents, rather than in D.C. searching for that common ground. The acrimony has forced Obama out onto the campaign trail, where he is making mistakes (e.g. the Post Office comment, the Cambridge police comment, and the AARP comment - all a consequence of the White House's desire to get back in front of the health care story). All of this has driven his poll numbers downward, leaving him less able to persuade the marginal members in the caucus, who must get getting nervous about November, 2010.

I can think of five very good reasons why the White House's lack of foresight on the potential for the intraparty squabble is absolutely inexcusable:

(1) For the months between November and January, we were treated to endless comparisons of Obama to the great presidents of the days of yore. One of them was Franklin Roosevelt. Question: who stopped the New Deal dead in its tracks after 1938? It wasn't the Republicans alone. It was Southern Democrats working in alliance with the Republicans. Who are the marginal members standing between Obama and a health care bill...Southern Democrats! Generally speaking, the internal cleavage within the Democratic Party (North v. South; left v. right) is really one of the most significant features of the political landscape since at least the Great Depression. After eighty some years and dozens of failed attempts at liberal reforms, there is no excuse for a President not to anticipate it rearing its head again.

(2) Much of last year was dominated by that famous primary brawl between Obama and Hillary - and all through these states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, etc.) the former First Lady made mincemeat of the junior Senator from Illinois. Then, when the general election rolled around, these states voted against him again. Historically speaking, these states usually vote for a winning Democrat. Obama should be very familiar with his struggles in this region, and not terribly surprised that the large number of Democratic members from it could create such problems for bills drafted by coastal liberals.

(3) How many of these members did Rahm Emanuel recruit? Fourteen of these seats changed hands in either 2006 or 2008 when Emanuel was in a leadership position in the House. Is this not a sufficiently representative sample to know that there could be trouble?

(4) Congress usually fails to find compromises on big solutions to big problems - exactly like what is being debated now - regardless of whether the legislature is under control of a single party or if it is split. This means that internal cleavages can do just as much damage to reform efforts as the partisan divide. This should be especially evident for an item like health care reform: Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton failed to deliver anything approaching the scope Obama is envisioning, even though the Democratic Party had complete control of Congress for at least parts of their terms.

(5) As stark as this map looks, the landscape in the Senate is even starker. Thirteen Democratic senators come from McCain states.

It's almost as if the President has absolutely no experience in dealing with the United States Congress whatsoever.

That's so puzzling, considering how Democrats turned down the fresh-faced newcomer who could turn a good phrase on the campaign trail for the old-hand who had been in Washington for 15 years by the time of the nomination battle. Oh wait...

-Jay Cost

Health Care: Five Political Blunders

As Congress heads into recess, it is a good time to evaluate its efforts in enacting health care reform. My opinion is that the leadership and the President have committed some significant blunders. While a bill is still quite possible, they have to stop making unforced errors. Here are five big mistakes they have made.

No Consistent Message. Will there be a public option, or health care cooperatives? Will there be a tax on gold-plated insurance policies, or the companies that offer them? Will there be a tax just on millionaires, or the middle class? Will there be an employer mandate, an individual mandate, both, or neither? This is just a sampling of the questions people are asking about health care reform. There are not yet any answers because no final bills have been produced - and will not be for some time.

This makes it quite easy to attack reform efforts. All the opponents have to do is pick the most unpalatable of all the options on the table, and go after them. But what about defending them? That's a lot trickier because you have to parse: "Well...I favor this item but not that one," and so on. Ultimately, your defense of the bill has to be contingent upon what's eventually included. That's a weaker rhetorical position.

Divided Messengers. Who said this: "[W]hen you have a Senator like Max Baucus helping us make the decisions on a reform health care bill, you're in trouble." It wasn't Jim DeMint. It wasn't John Boehner. It was...John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee!

Ideally speaking, a political party wants to push an issue that unites its side and divides the other side. For some reason, after fifteen years out of power, the Democrats have chosen as their first major legislative push an issue that does exactly the opposite. So it is that the leader of a prominent House committee criticizes the leader of a prominent Senate committee. So it is that liberal groups attack Ben Nelson, who might ultimately be the pivotal vote in the Senate. So it is that after weeks of arm-twisting and deal-making on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman still lost five Democrats on his committee (and not all of them were Blue Dogs). The latter implies a not insubstantial number of defections on the House floor. Some of them will be moderate - but there may be liberals voting nay as well. Late last week 57 progressives signed a tartly worded letter to Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel and George Miller protesting the deal with the Blue Dogs and concluding: "We simply cannot vote for such a proposal." And this is just in the House.

As if the dry economics of public plans and surtaxes were not enough to divide members - there now is a question over whether the House bill subsidizes abortion. Good - as we all know, no issue bridges the political divide quite like abortion!

We'll see if the Dems' foray into the abortion controversy winds up any better than Jerry's.

Bad Timing. The timing of this push is horrible - of all the unforced errors on the part of Obama and the congressional leadership, this one is the worst. They are debating health care at a time when people are cheering that the economy is only shrinking by 1%, so relieved they are that the "free fall" is over! This Congress and President are simply not focusing on what is worrying the voters. Instead, they're too busy chasing FDR's ghost. Every Democratic leader wants to be the one to expand the New Deal/Great Society social welfare state - and Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid plan to be the ones to do it.

The political problem with this is twofold. First, the electoral risks associated with not staying focused on job one - fixing the economy - are too obvious to bother enumerating. Second, the government has already emptied the Treasury with TARP, the auto bailout, and the stimulus bill. The country is now feeling particularly averse to deficit spending, which makes the current political environment quite different from 1964/65, the last time such an expansion of social welfare was achieved. Back then, the country had been enjoying a five-year economic boom, and times were so good that LBJ could offer Kennedy's tax cut, the Great Society, and an amping up of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. That's not the way it is now. As the AP reports, tax receipts have declined 18% this year - the worst drop since the Great Depression - and President Obama's second choice for Commerce Secretary can now suggest on national television that we're on our way to being a Banana Republic...without anybody laughing him off the tube.

No Clear Legislative Strategy. What's the game plan to get a bill through the whole Congress? I'm not sure anybody has one. I once thought the President did - but after the legislature blew past his deadlines, I'm now quite skeptical. I do not think those deadlines were realistic, which makes me wonder what other unrealistic expectations his team has.

Here is the trillion-dollar question: can the legislature produce a bill that picks up enough moderates without alienating the left flank? I do not know the answer to this question - and frankly I don't think the Democratic leadership in Congress knows, either. I do not think they were even taking the question seriously until recently. How else to explain the pressure that has been exerted on Max Baucus, whose committee remains the best chance for a passable compromise? How else to explain why House Democratic leaders would think they could unveil a bill that made 40+ Blue Dogs choke? How about the objections by the progressives after the deal was reached? The compromise in Energy and Commerce was not so much a solution to the larger problem, but a way to kick the can down the road.

Charles Krauthammer suggested recently that the Democrats would pass something this year, though it would be much less than what has been offered to date. Maybe so - but is that realistic? Keith Hennessey doesn't seem to think so:

Some in Washington think the White House/Pelosi messaging shift is a strategic retreat, laying the groundwork for a fallback position in which the President could declare victory by enacting just the insurance reforms. As a matter of abstract legislative strategy this is a reasonable supposition. The health care reform legislative effort is going poorly for the President, and now is a logical time to make an initial shift to position for a partial win later.

But I don't see it. The health insurance reforms cannot be separated from the rest of the bill for substantive and procedural reasons. While the spending numbers could obviously be dialed way down, I don't see how one would substantively separate the health insurance reforms from the rest of the bill and have it still work. Even if you could, I don't see how you could procedurally get this done given the likely vote situation. Even if the abstract legislative strategy is correct that it's time for the Administration to cut their losses and prepare for a partial victory, I cannot figure out how they could execute such a strategic shift and deliver the desired result. They may be stuck with something close to an all-or-nothing choice.

Too Much At Once? The scope of this bill might simply be too great. Congress is not well-suited for tackling omnibus issues such as "health care reform." The larger the issue a bill deals with, the more likely a member will find some provision in it that he or she just cannot stomach, and the less likely the bill will pass. Congress is much better at passing bills whose scope is more narrow. In the sixteen years since Bill Clinton's efforts for a major overhaul crashed and burned, Congress has not been inactive on the health care front. Far from it. It passed and expanded SCHIP. It also approved a Medicare prescription drug bill. Those are the sorts of bills that, because their scope is more narrow, have an easier time getting to the President's desk.

When you aim for an omnibus health care overhaul, the potential payoffs are greater: you add yourself to the pantheon of great Democratic presidents if you succeed. But the risks are greater still: you increase your odds that something, somewhere in your 1,000+ page bill pisses off the pivotal legislator. To put it simply, there is a reason why no President since Harry Truman has succeeded at what Barack Obama intends here.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Tactical Mistake

Since the time of FDR, Democratic Presidents have often had trouble with their congressional committee chairs. Prior to the Great Depression, the Democratic Party did not extend far beyond the South and New York. What this meant was that the senior Democrats in the chamber were mostly from Dixie. So, when the Democrats came to control the Congress in 1930, southerners ascended to the committee chairmanships. This frequently created tensions with New Deal liberals, especially regarding civil rights.

The Democratic Party changed in the decades after the Great Depression - and the relationship of the committee chairs to the broader party changed as well. We can quantify these changes via a few simple steps:

-We will measure the ideology of the median House legislator from 1948 onwards. This legislator has half of the House to his or her left and half to the right. On ideologically divisive issues, he or she can be thought of as the pivotal vote in the House.

-We will measure the ideology of the median House committee chair from 1948 onwards. This is the chairman who has half of all chairmen to his or her left and half to the right.

-We will measure the ideology of the median House prestige committee chair from 1948 onwards. The prestige committees are defined by Davidson, Oleszek and Lee (2008). These are: Appropriations, Budget, Commerce, Financial Services, Rules, and Ways & Means.

-We will look only at the House, more specifically at years when the Democrats control the House. That way, the median legislator is a Democrat.

-We will use DW-Nominate scores to measure the ideology of these House members. They generally run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative).

These steps produce the following chart:

Alternative Legislators, Chairs, and Prestige Chairs 2.jpg

From 1954 to 1970, there was generally a tight correspondence between the committee chairs and the median legislator, with each being pretty moderate. In the mid-70s, they all tacked to the left - but whereas the median legislator quickly swung back to the right, the chairs kept trending leftward. By the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the differences had become quite substantial - with committee chairs being well to the left of the median legislator. After 12 years of Republican rule, the Democrats returned to power - and their chairs had moved farther leftward while the median voter was basically unchanged. The 110th Congress (2006-07) exhibits the largest divergence between the chairs and the median legislator since World War II. We don't yet have ideological scores for the current Congress, but I am sure there is still a great deal of space between these groups.

Much of this deviation can be explained by the system of seniority that governs chairmanships. It's not a formal rule among House Democrats, but nevertheless:

[Nancy] Pelosi, unlike her GOP predecessors, chose to follow seniority in designating committee chairs. As a result, many of the Democratic chairs are liberal "old bulls" who either headed or were senior members of several of the most influential committees prior to the GOP takeover in 1995. [Davidson, Oleszek, and Lee (2008), 213.]

I mentioned last week that Bush's median share of the 2004 vote in the districts of current chairmen was just 36%. Democrats in liberal districts are less likely to be defeated, meaning that they are around long enough to ascend to chairmanships, and more likely to be liberal.

Meanwhile, thanks to majority-minority districting, as well as the party's overwhelming strength in densely populated urban areas, Democrats win 80-90% of the presidential vote in many congressional districts, which means they are quite safe. But it also means that to find 218 seats, they have to carry districts where their presidential candidates win less than 50%. Thus, you get a phenomenon like the current one: Heath Shuler (D-NC) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) make the difference between majority and minority status, but Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Barney Frank (D-MA) gavel the key committees once the majority has been achieved.

So, given all this, should we be surprised that House leaders produced a health care bill that is too liberal for the swing Democrats?

Ideally speaking, we might expect these leaders to craft a bill with their marginal members in mind - ensuring that it has enough votes for passage. We might also expect the leadership to put pressure on the chairmen and bill writers so that few (if any) members have to vote against their districts in order to get the bill through. However, when we move away from the clean results of assumption-driven rational choice theory into the real world - it is inevitable that practical problems will creep into situations like this. Namely, can we really expect Henry Waxman (D-CA) to have a good sense of what moderates like Mike Ross (D-AR) can support and what they cannot?

I'd say no. We shouldn't be surprised that the Congressman from Beverly Hills and the Congressman from Hot Springs haven't been able to see eye-to-eye on this one. Generally speaking, the ideological divergence between the liberal party leaders and the moderate swing Democrats is so large that this was bound to be a danger; there was always a chance the liberals would push for a bill beyond what their pivotal moderates could support.

I'd ask: where was the White House on this one?

The President is the country's only nationally elected official - so he should have the kind of broad perspective necessary to spot a liberal committee chair who is producing a bill too far to the left of the pivotal legislator. Unlike representatives who are electorally bound to serve a tiny sliver of the nation, the President has an interest in a consensus that unites the diverse segments of the country he had to woo to become President. That goes double for this President, who campaigned on a pledge to build such a consensus. Above all, the President is the one with the prestige needed to muscle intransigent leaders into drafting a broader bill. Again, that goes double for President Obama - the first president in 20 years to come into office with a majority of the popular vote and an enormous bank of good will upon which to draw.

President Obama has the perspective, incentive, and prestige to push Congress to produce policy reforms that can win a broad consensus. But apparently he did not do that. If anything, the President's insistence on such a speedy timeline probably increased the likelihood that such a problem would emerge. Bridging the divide between the liberals and moderates was going to take more time than what the President was allowing. This is quite clear when we consider the bipartisan snail's pace in the Senate Finance Committee; committees that met Obama's deadline have all produced bills that appear far too narrow for passage.

Why did the White House allow these committees to draft bills that would upset so many moderates? Did they think the Blue Dogs would simply fall in line, just weeks after they had to make a difficult choice on cap-and-trade? Did they forget that there are 49 Democrats who come from districts that voted for John McCain - or did they think these members would have no problem getting behind a bill produced by coastal liberals like Waxman, Rangel and George Miller (D-CA)?

I can appreciate why the Obama White House wanted to take a more hands-off approach on health care reform than what President Clinton tried in 1993. At its core, the reasoning is sound: if the critical task is for Congress to reach a consensus, it makes sense to have the Congress find the consensus itself. But I think the reasoning was taken too far; the White House has been too hands off. It should have stepped in earlier, playing go-between for the leadership and those crucial moderates to make sure the bill was still on track to get to half-plus-one votes (or, hopefully, many more). It should have understood that the ideological distance between the leaders and the median legislator in this Congress could threaten reform efforts.

Bill Clinton made a mistake in 1993 by having the executive branch draft the reform proposal. Barack Obama was right to want to correct this, but he over-corrected. If Clinton left too little to Congress, Obama left too much. This was a tactical mistake.

This does not necessarily mean that health care reform is doomed. There is still a good chance that the liberals and the moderates will find common ground. But this was a needless setback - one that has made President Obama, the House leadership, and the Democratic Party look bad. It has given the GOP an opening to lobby against the proposed reforms. The Democrats in Congress cannot respond with a single voice, and the President is too busy softening all his firm deadlines. It's no surprise that Obama's poll numbers are dropping, and the public has grown skeptical of the proposals on the table.

It didn't have to happen this way. The White House could have found some middle ground between Clinton's approach and the approach it chose. It could have still left the design of the reform to Congress, but made sure that the liberal leaders did not overreach. It could have seen to it that the moderate Democrats who are decisive on the House floor were brought into the negotiations earlier. This intra-party battle may have been inevitable, but it could have been waged in private rather than in public.

Committee assignment data:

Garrison Nelson. Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947-1992: House of Representatives/81st through 103rd Congresses, Accessed 7-23-09.

Charles Stewart III and Jonathan Woon. Congressional Committee Assignments, 103rd to 110th Congresses, 1993--2007: House of Representatives/110th Congress, Accessed 7-23-09.

Publicly available here, courtesy of Professor Charles Stewart III.

-Jay Cost

Southern Democrats Feel Pressure from Obama Agenda

Representative Dan Boren [D-OK] recently sat down for an interview with the Oklahoma Gazette's Will Holland, and had some harsh words for the leader of his own party. The following is an excerpt from that report:

Boren has just come inside to this air-conditioned oasis after making a speech to commemorate the opening of a new Democratic headquarters in Durant, a community deep in the heart of Southeast Oklahoma. He braved the 100-degree, blast-furnace heat to speak to a gathering of local Democrats, many clad in boots and cowboy hats, because these supporters make up the base of the state's Democratic Party. And make no mistake about it: The Democratic Party is strong here. This is not, however, President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Ten feet from the desk, in the main hallway of Boren's new Durant headquarters, the congressman beams from a portrait, his arm draped around President George W. Bush. A photo with the current president is nowhere to be found.

"Barack Obama is very unpopular," said Boren, who represents Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District. "He got 34 percent of the vote statewide, and less in our district. If he were to run for re-election today, I bet it would be even worse."

Boren points out that he does support some of Obama's initiatives, like the economic stimulus package. He has voted for Obama-supported bills 81 percent of the time, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly study. But despite this, he said the president is too liberal.

"It would be a lot nicer if we had someone who was in the middle," he said. "Bill Clinton won our district. A lot of people don't remember that, but he, in 1996, carried this district. I think if you have someone who governs from the middle, who's pragmatic, who works with both parties. President Obama talks a lot about bipartisanship. If you look at some of the legislation, he may have one or two Republicans." [Emphasis Mine]

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about how the shifting sands of northeastern politics has undermined the position of Republicans in that region. This shift was a long time in the making; as the public standing of George W. Bush declined from 2006 to 2008, it was not a great surprise the GOP shed seats in Connecticut, New York, and eastern Pennsylvania - all of which are places where they have exhibited weakness for some time. These seats were the "low-hanging fruit" of the Republican House caucus.

But the Democrats have a similar problem, albeit in a different part of the country. They have not suffered any significant congressional losses since 1994, so there is no story to tell of the party being wiped out in any area. Still, Democratic gains in the Northeast and West have corresponded with a decline in Southern and rural areas on the presidential level, leaving members like Dan Boren more vulnerable. We can appreciate this change by looking at the following map. It displays the countywide vote in the South Central divisions (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas) in 1996 and 2008.

South Central Divisions, 1996-2008.jpg

As we can see, Clinton was very successful in this part of the country. He won Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana by putting together a coalition of African-Americans and lower-income, rural whites. Obama, meanwhile, failed to win those lower-income whites - who swung heavily to McCain. The blue-shaded counties in the 2008 map tend to have large percentages of either African Americans (especially in Alabama's "Black Belt" and the Mississippi Delta) or Hispanics (in southern Texas). That's why Obama carried them. Importantly for Boren, the President lost every single county in Oklahoma.

There is a similar story to tell in the South Atlantic division of the country:

South Atlantic 1996 and 2008.jpg

As Sean Trende and I argued earlier in the year, Obama did about as well as Clinton did division-wide, but for different reasons. Obama polled substantially worse than Clinton in many rural and small town areas, but slightly better in many larger metropolitan areas, which have been gaining population. We can see this in particular in Virginia. Note Obama's poor performance in the southwestern part of the state. He more than made up for this difference in Northern Virginia, which is why he won the state while Clinton lost it. Notice also that Obama won fewer counties than Clinton in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but he was about as strong (if not a bit stronger) in the larger metropolitan areas.

Obama's strong performance in large metropolitan areas has been trumpeted by proponents of the "emerging Democratic majority," but it must be a source of concern to House members like Dan Boren, whose district is 64.4% rural and whose constituents haven't voted Democrat in 12 years. Historically speaking, Democratic strength in the South was based on the rural vote. That's the heart of the party going back to Andrew Jackson and the response to the "Corrupt Bargain" of 1825. Many of these rural voters, though conservative in outlook, still send Democrats to Congress, who now are under pressure because of the President's liberal agenda and decidedly urban coalition.

In other words, Dan Boren is probably not alone among Democrats wishing the President was more "bipartisan." The following chart lists Southern House Democrats whose districts voted more Republican than the rest of the country last year, and the extent to which there was a Republican "swing."

Southern House Democrats in Republican-Leaning Districts.jpg

To this list we might also add seven members whose districts are a stone's throw from the Ohio River: Jason Altmire (PA-4), Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3), Brad Ellsworth (IN-8), Baron Hill (IN-9), Jack Murtha (PA-12), Zack Space (OH-18), and Charlie Wilson (OH-6). All of these districts voted for McCain over Obama. Though they were drawn differently in the 1990s, Clinton defeated Bob Dole in all of the older versions.

Most of these Southern and Ohio River Democrats voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Most are also members of the House Blue Dog Coalition, which has signaled concern with the leadership's version of health care reform, and whose members actually intend to block it when it comes up for a vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee. These members come from districts that stopped voting Democratic on the presidential level some time ago, but continue to send Democrats to the House. It's not a surprise that they would be more resistant to Obama and Pelosi's agenda than Eastern and Western Democrats.

The bottom line is that Obama's voting coalition is substantially less rural, less white, and less Southern than Clinton's - leaving many House members in a difficult position vis-à-vis the party's legislative agenda. Members like Boren now must choose between their party and their constituents. Few face as much pressure as Dan Boren surely does, but most of them face at least some, especially on the controversial bills. The more they choose to side with their constituents, the smaller the margin the Democrats have for getting Obama's agenda through Congress.

Maps Courtesy of Sean Trende

-Jay Cost

The Penny Ante Stakes of the Sotomayor Nomination

On Monday in the Washington Post, Bill Kristol suggested that the political impact of the Sotomayor nomination would be slight: "Obviously, the debate over Sotomayor is important in its own right. And obviously there could be surprises over the next week. But I think the political impact of what we're seeing is likely to be minimal."

I agree entirely with this. I have a few points of my own I'd like to add. First, Sotomayor is not expected to shift the balance of power on the Court, at least for major issues like abortion. So, we should not expect many big policy chances as a consequence of this nomination.

Second, I don't think much of the argument that this nomination solidifies Obama's standing with Hispanics. Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor did not stop Bill Clinton from opening a huge gender gap in 1992 and 1996. A Court nomination that targets a particular group may be a political payoff, but it is merely a symbolic one. It's not a material benefit, which suggests it is not as powerful. It reminds me of an old tactic employed by some urban machines when their resources were running low and groups still had to be appeased: they would do something like throw an ethnic pride parade. Nobody was made materially better off by such an event. It just made people feel good, and hopefully more inclined to support the machine at the ballot box. This was a weak benefit, a poor way to win votes, and it is not a huge surprise that most of these machines have since been toppled. Similarly, the nomination of Sotomayor might be a symbolic benefit to the Hispanic community, but it does not look like the White House can deliver the more substantial benefit of immigration reform this year.

Third, if this is meant to be a symbolic benefit, it's not a great one. The Court is the most private branch of the federal government. Sotomayor will be confirmed, then effectively disappear from the public radar. Ideally, you'd want a symbolic payoff to be highly visible and salient - something like a parade - so that people feel the emotions of the symbolism very strongly when it comes time to vote. The Supreme Court is not the venue for such a payoff! It is hard to imagine Sotomayor having any kind of long-term effect on voters, at least those who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican.

My guess is that Sotomayor will be confirmed with relatively few Republican votes. The cry will go up once again about the GOP and Hispanics, that the party is further alienating itself from this crucial voting bloc, and so on. Sooner rather than later, all of this will be forgotten. The GOP will continue to have a problem with Hispanic voters, but this nomination will have no appreciable effect on it either way.

-Jay Cost

What Does 60 Votes Mean?

With Al Franken now installed as Minnesota's second senator - a lot has been made about the Democrats having a "filibuster-proof" majority. Perhaps too much.

A filibuster-proof majority is great for the party that has it, but it has its limits. On purely party-line votes, perhaps procedural stuff, it should make a difference. But, on the really big stuff, what will matter is the preferences of the individual legislators.

The bonds of partisanship are relatively weak in the United States Congress, and especially weak in the Senate. This limits the power that the party in the chamber has over its members. Consider:

-Candidates who declare for the Senate do so of their own volition. They might receive encouragement from the party - but it's essentially up to them.

-Candidates put together their own campaign organizations, fundraising apparatus, staff, and so on. This outfit is responsible to the candidate and the candidate alone.

-At most, the party plays only a role of facilitator - and even then, that role is typically very modest.

-Candidates who win election to the Senate develop their own electoral connections to interest groups, well connected players, and key constituents - thereby making them even more independent when time comes for reelection.

-Typically, party leaders are tolerant of defecting members, especially in the Senate. Arlen Specter is a great example. He was probably one of the most unreliable Republican votes in the Senate, but this never stopped him from (a) receiving a great deal of financial support from his fellow members come election time or (b) advancing to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee when it was his turn.

The implication of all this is that senators stand alone when they face the voters. The party did not get them into office, and it cannot keep them there. So, we should not expect Harry Reid and the other caucus leaders to have the ability to induce members to vote against their own preferences - at least not on the big stuff that captures public attention. This is not to say that the caucus party does not have power. It does. We just need to understand that this power is limited.

So what does 60 votes mean? Franken should be one of the most liberal members of the Senate. This helps move the chamber to the left. Additionally, when all Democratic senators are unified against all Republican senators on a particular issue - 60 votes means there is nothing the GOP can do. However, considering the moderates in both caucuses - Collins, Landrieu, Nelson, Snowe, Specter, etc. - I think the number of such cases will be relatively small. That's why I suggested procedural stuff that favors one party over the other. On climate change or health care - if they cannot write a bill that pleases Nelson and Landrieu, they'll have 58 votes, not 60. Don't expect them to toe the line, if toeing the line means voting against their constituents and putting their reelection at risk.

My intuition is that this is why Obama hypocritically put budget reconciliation on the table in the Spring. He wasn't simply worried about Republicans filibustering legislation he supported. Considering that at the time the GOP coalition included Collins, Snowe, and Specter - all of whom are quite moderate (and who joined up on the stimulus bill) - what were the chances that the President could not get at least one of these votes while still getting all of the Democrats? I'd say fairly slim, at least on the big stuff. My feeling is that budget reconciliation was put on the table to get around the effective veto of this moderate, bipartisan bloc, which used to sit in the middle of the entire chamber, but now with two big Democratic wins sits closer to the "filibuster pivot."

-Jay Cost

Climate Bill Faces Long Odds in Senate

On Friday the House narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill, by a vote of 219 to 212. The conventional wisdom now is that the bill will have a difficult time passing the Senate. This is from the Wall Street Journal:

[I[t isn't clear how much of the sprawling House bill will survive in the Senate, where moderate Democrats and Republicans could form a majority that backs less ambitious action. Among the potential problem areas: the House bill has a provision that would impose tariffs on goods imported from countries that don't match U.S. carbon dioxide restrictions -- a slap at China and India that some business interests fear could provoke a trade war.

Despite the narrow victory, the distribution of the House vote actually suggests that the climate bill will have a tough road ahead in the Senate, as the following analysis will show. To start, let's break down the House vote by state caucuses. The following map does this. If a state's House caucus voted in favor of the bill on Friday (i.e. a majority of House members in the state voted yea), it is shaded green. If its caucus voted against (i.e. a majority voted nay), it is shaded red.

House Climate Vote.gif

If the vote in the House on this bill had been calculated like the vote for President in the case of no majority winner in the Electoral College - where each state gets one vote - the climate bill would not have passed. Twenty-two state caucuses voted in favor of it while twenty-eight voted against. The bill passed in large part because of strong support from California and New York, which accounted for more than 26% of the total votes in favor of the bill.

This is a tipoff that the bill might run afoul of the Connecticut Compromise, for the Senate is not apportioned by population. California and New York only control 4% of the votes in the Senate, as opposed to 19% in the House. On the other hand, extrapolating directly from House caucus votes to Senate votes could induce an inferential fallacy. For instance, simply because Missouri's House caucus voted against Waxman-Markey does not mean Claire McCaskill would vote similarly. All of Missouri's Democratic House members voted in favor of the bill. The caucus overall swung against it because every Republican was opposed, and the state has one more Republican than Democrat in the House.

Where we can get some real analytical purchase is by looking at not only how state caucuses voted, but how partisans within those caucuses voted as well. In particular, what can the forty-four House Democrats who voted against Waxman-Markey tell us about the Senate? The following chart helps us answer this question by organizing Senate Democrats into four categories, depending on the "pressure" they face to vote against the party. Pressure is defined by the House vote, and the categories are developed thusly:

-Senators who face "no pressure" come from states that voted in favor of the bill, and where there were no Democratic defectors.

-Senators who face "slight pressure" either come from states that voted against it but with no Democratic defectors, or states that voted in favor but with at least one Democratic defector.

- Senators who face "moderate pressure" come from states that voted against it, and with at least one Democratic defector.

-Senators who face "significant pressure" come from states that voted against it and where most (or all) Democrats defected.

Senate Democrats Pressure on Climate Bill.jpg

As we can see, many Senate Democrats face "pressure" to vote against the party. Nine face "significant pressure," and another six face "moderate pressure." A lot of these members might ultimately vote yea - but many of them might not. Of the fourteen Democrats under "significant" or "moderate pressure" who were in the last Congress - twelve either voted against cloture on the Lieberman-Warner climate bill, did not vote, or voted in favor but indicated to Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer that they opposed "final passage of the [bill] in its current form." Thus, even with 59 Democrats (or 60 if/when Franken is admitted), passage could be difficult.

Additionally, I'd note the senators with the asterisks next to their names under the "slight" heading. These are Democrats who come from states where all the House members are Republican. So, this chart might understate the pressure they face. Of course, the "slight" category also has a few senators whose pressure is probably overstated. There were a handful of defecting Democrats in California, Illinois, and New York - even though each state's delegation voted heavily for the bill. Accordingly, Boxer, Burris, Durbin, Feinstein, Gillibrand, and Schumer are placed here, even though they probably face little-to-no pressure to vote against the party. There were even Republican yea votes in Illinois and New York.

If this bill comes up for a vote in the Senate - it will be interesting to watch Arlen Specter. Two House Democrats from Western Pennsylvania - Altmire and Dahlkemper - voted against this bill. Historically, Specter has been very weak in that part of the state - and one of his big concerns has to be greater Pittsburgh Democrats. On the other hand, most Philadelphia area Democrats (including his prospective primary opponent, Joe Sestak) voted in favor of the bill. Specter being the "unprincipled hack" that he is, we should expect him to come down on the side that maximizes his likelihood of electoral success - but which side is that?

Now, what about the Republicans?

Senate Republicans Pressure on Climate Bill.jpg

This implies much more party unity on the GOP side, with no Republicans facing "significant" or even "moderate pressure" and just a handful facing "slight pressure." Democrats might be hard-pressed to win any Republican votes, although as usual it will be interesting to see what Collins and Snowe do.

It's important to stress the limitations of this analysis. Senators face different electoral calculations than House members - being up for a vote once every six years rather than once every two, being more high-profile, typically facing better opponents, and so on. Additionally, simply because an aggregation of House members voted one way or another does not mean we should expect a senator from the same state to vote similarly. That's a fallacy of composition. So, we have to be careful not to make too much of the preceding.

Still, it's fair to say that the House vote is a helpful gauge on the pulse of the Senate. And while the bill passed the House, the way the vote was distributed in the lower chamber suggests that it will encounter significant challenges in the Senate.

-Jay Cost

The Pivotal Politics of Health Care Reform, Part II

Yesterday I drew on Keith Krehbiel's Pivotal Politics to outline a basic structure of the health care reform fight. Today, I want to continue this discussion by reviewing some of the specific elements of the upcoming battle. I'll still be drawing on Krehbiel's basic structure - although this will be more my interpretation of the current situation than a recitation of his work.

Ideally, I would have liked to integrate the following considerations into a single argument. As the battle lines are drawn, I think that will become possible. But we're still very early in the process - so for now, the points that follow basically stand on their own.


Krehbiel's theory highlights the importance of the "filibuster pivot," the marginal legislator in the Senate who determines whether a filibuster will be sustained. The President and congressional Democrats have indicated a willingness to use budget reconciliation, which would eliminate the filibuster pivot and allow for a much more narrow voting coalition.

In theory, this would ease passage - as it would reduce the number of pivots the overhaul has to pass through. In practice, however, this could be troublesome.

First, in The Audacity of Hope, the President blasts his predecessor for precisely the same technique. Can he legitimately engage in the same practices he opposed? Maybe. On the one hand, the public doesn't usually get worked up over process. There was no outcry last summer when he abandoned his promise to pursue public financing, for nakedly political reasons. Plus, there's a certain allowance we're all prepared to give politicians when it comes to reconciling campaign rhetoric and governing reality. On the other hand, he'd be pursuing a legislative tactic he once vociferously decried to transform a large part of the economy via a narrow majority. This could be a stretch.

Second, if budget reconciliation is used to pass health care - it will probably be due to the fact that at least some Democrats would join in a filibuster. The more Democrats who would join a filibuster, the more problematic reconciliation becomes as a strategy. If Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu are the only Democrats on the outside looking in - then I think it would be doable. But what if it's seven or eight? That's another matter.

Third, as David Gratzer of the Manhattan Institute notes, reconciliation might be a double-edged sword. It would free congressional Democrats in the key committees to write a bill that could be quite far to the left. Will they do this? If they do, will the final product be something the public would support?

Can a Consensus Be Found?

Generally speaking, the key players recognize the need for some reform of the health care system. This is necessary, but far from sufficient for passage of the bill. Following what we reviewed yesterday - what also matters is how the alternative compares to the status quo. Historically speaking, this is what trips reformers up.

My sense of things is that there are at least three potentially nettlesome points that could preclude a consensus forming for an alternative: the scope of reform (universal or something less?), the content of reform (a public insurance option or not?) and how to pay for it.

The latter two seem at this point to be the most prominent disagreements. Mary Landrieu has already come out in opposition to a public insurance option, and many Blue Dogs in the House have expressed concern with it. If a public option is deemed unacceptable to these Democrats, but still included in the bill - they will vote in favor of the status quo, even if they disapprove of it generally. Additionally, the public financing option is starting to crack the veneer of consensus. The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association has come out against a public financing option. It agrees that reforms are necessary - just not this one. This is exactly the problem that has sunk many big reforms: everybody agrees that the status quo stinks, but not enough people or groups agree that any given alternative is an improvement.

Paying for it also appears to be a big challenge at this point. This week, Bloomberg reported that the President wants Congress to reconsider limiting tax deductions for the wealthiest as a way to pay for the bill. However, CQ reported that this option remains deeply unpopular with members of Congress. This is not a huge surprise. Playing around with tax deductions is a key way members of Congress satisfy their constituencies. Limiting deductions for the wealthy reduces their ability to satisfy certain electorates (especially the ones with money to donate to reelection efforts). Senate Democrats seem partial to a tax on health benefits, but House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee are much less so. Will the President - for the sake of compromise - support such a tax? Maybe. Of course, he campaigned against McCain on this issue, and promised that 95% of the public would have a tax cut, not an increase, under his watch. That would give the opposition some ammunition. Plus, labor unions are opposed, as some of their benefits might be made taxable. And of course Ways and Means Democrats might not go for it.

All in all, there are a lot of potential complications - yet notice who I haven't mentioned: the Republicans! Disagreements about financing this overhaul could induce a significant inter-branch, inter-chamber conflict, one that's fought entirely on the Democratic side. That's happened before. Again, what we have to look for here is not just whether everybody dislikes the status quo - we know they do. We also have to look for whether they can find some alternative to the status quo - including how to pay for it.

Public Opinion Will Matter

On low-salience issues - congressmen typically have a freer hand to vote as they like. But on issues that capture the public's attention - their positions are constrained. This could make a difference in the search for a compromise.

The chart I presented yesterday might give the false impression that the preferences of legislators are formed via purely philosophical considerations. They are not. Instead, they depend heavily on public reaction. Legislators are strategic seekers of reelection, after all.

This adds a twist to the search for compromise. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, Ohio congressman Zack Space is believed by the bill writers to be the median legislator. If he votes yes, the bill passes. No, and it fails. So, they go to Mr. Space and ask him what he thinks of the bill.

He might have to equivocate. Space is from Ohio's 18th Congressional District - which went for Bush twice, then McCain. So, his voters might be disinclined to the bill after it gets a full airing. Plus, Space is just a sophomore legislator - meaning that he probably has not built up the kind of credibility and trust that helps create a "personal vote." In other words, Space would have to wait and see how his constituents react. There's probably little information he could provide beyond generalities about the mood of his constituents.

But there are so many polls out there - isn't it easy to gauge public opinion? No. In fact, the polls can contribute to the false sense that public opinion is firmly established. On a subject like health care - it's potentially malleable.

Recently, Rasmussen found:

Sixty-three percent (63%) of voters agree with the core objective of providing affordable health care for 'every single American'.

Overall, just 35% rate the U.S. health care system as good or excellent. That suggests plenty of room for improvement. The biggest challenge to any reform proposal, however, is that 70% of insured rate their own health insurance coverage as good or excellent. This means that any proposal that would force people to exchange their existing plan for something new is a non-starter. In fact, only 25% would support a reform proposal that required a change in their own coverage.

This suggests public uncertainty about what to do. People want affordable care for everybody, but they don't want their plan changed. They think the whole system is bad, but they like their own place in the system. That gives both sides at least a toehold with public opinion.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that while the public may be more convinced that health care is a problem, they have not broken decisively toward any particular solution. In 1993, it found that 66% of the public would be willing to pay more in taxes for the sake of universal health insurance. It asked the same question this February, and found just 49% willing to sacrifice. Relatedly, in 1999 it found that 43% thought government should be primarily responsible for health care coverage, compared to 28% favoring employers, and just 17% favoring individuals. In February, those numbers shifted rightward - with 36% favoring government, 24% employers, and 31% favoring individuals.

This sort of ambivalence implies that the fate of any reform proposal will depend on how well each side argues its case. One way in which this battle is bound to occur is via euphemisms. Democrats like to call one program "a public choice option" to facilitate "universal care." Republicans call the same program "bureaucrat-run socialized medicine." My hunch is that if you offered the Democratic language to the public, it would support the bill. Offer the Republican language, it would oppose it. This suggests that the actual political fight could be determinative.

In the meantime, legislative drafters will have to engage in some guesswork on whether a given proposal can attract enough votes for passage. Nobody can be sure - as it depends on how the public eventually views the bill. So, while the pivotal politics theory is scientific - its application by legislative leaders is more artistic, depending heavily on hunches and intuitions about what can be sold and what can't.

Bringing Tactics Back In

I opened this series suggesting that while legislative tactics are important, they need to take a back seat to structure. Having now given structure its due - I want to offer some thoughts on Obama's tactical approach.

It's easy to be critical of Clinton's top-down strategy in 1993 because his bill failed. But, in light of the generally dismal track record of such reforms, we shouldn't be overcritical. In fact, I think Obama's bottom-up approach has some risks, too.

Congress is simply not well suited to designing comprehensive laws like this. As Professor Charles O. Jones once said: "Congressional decision making sometimes resembles a meat slicer, reducing public problems to a series of discrete, unrelated, and often contradictory tidbits of policy." We saw something like this with the stimulus bill. We're seeing it again with the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Each bore the stamp of congressional particularism. Rather than having been constructed to tackle the problem in the most efficient way - they appeared cobbled to together to satisfy the constituencies whose support was critical for passage.

Promoting a bottom-up health care reform runs the same risk. The big question is, what happens if this process produces a bill that reads like an endless set of unconnected rules and regulations, adding up to an unintelligible jumble? This might scare the public off.

This question becomes even more pertinent if the Obama Administration's insistence on the need for speed goes unheeded. Both Senators Grassley and Enzi have complained this week about the President's push for a quick timeline. Speed helped salvage the stimulus bill - as the vote was taken before the opposition could fully communicate the inefficiencies of the bill. However, speed was justified then because the economy was supposedly on the line: "crisis could become catastrophe," and so on. That's a much tougher case to make here. Speed is necessary only for political purposes - namely, to get the bill passed before the President's honeymoon ends and/or the opposition discovers a weakness that it can exploit. If the Obama administration cannot move this quickly through the legislature, the congressional "meat slicer" might produce a bill that the public will have time to consider, then reject. In that case, the status quo wins.


The point of these essays has not been to assign odds to the probability of health care reform passing this year. That's well outside my scope. Instead, there are two modest lessons to walk away with.

First, it's good to cruise up to 30,000 feet for a while to get a lay of the land. This is easy to miss, given that press reports provide fragmentary information focused on the day-to-day maneuvers of this committee or that interest group. What I wanted to do here is outline a basic structure for understanding the upcoming battle, as well as some very general considerations of what to look for as we move forward.

Second, it's clear that the chances of a major overhaul are at their greatest point in at least sixteen years - maybe longer. Yet we need to recognize that: our system does not often allow substantial changes to pass through; previous Democrats from Truman to Clinton have failed at precisely what President Obama intends to do; and there are potential obstacles to passage.

Regardless of what happens, this should be a fascinating process to watch - and an excellent civics lesson on how our system works. Either it will be one of those rare instances when there is a major policy breakthrough, or it will be another case of lofty ambitions being thwarted by our complicated, Madisonian system.

-Jay Cost

The Pivotal Politics of Health Care Reform, Part I

President Obama has made an overhaul of the American health care system a major domestic priority this year. He's not the first Democratic President to do this. Health care was the cornerstone of the Clinton domestic agenda during the 103rd Congress, and Democratic presidents since Truman have been looking to implement some form of universal care.

Why has such an overhaul been so difficult to implement? According to some, the problem has been tactical. Take, for instance, Matt Bai's recent explanation in the New York Times Magazine:

The plan Bill Clinton took to Congress then, running to more than 1,000 pages of impenetrable new regulations, wasn't what you'd call politically savvy, but the strategy used to sell it was even worse...His wife, the current secretary of state, developed the health care plan largely without taking House and Senate leaders into her confidence, instead dropping it at the doorstep of the Capitol as a fait accompli. Ever jealous of its prerogative, Congress took a long look, yawned and kicked the whole plan to the gutter, where it soon washed away for good -- along with much of Clinton's ambition for his presidency.

The Clinton team certainly mismanaged health care reform in 1993; however, I think there's more to it than this. It's important to talk about the players, personalities, and tactics employed to turn a bill into law - but to focus relentlessly on this means we miss the forest for the trees.

Today, I want to examine the structural features that have conditioned past policy battles, and that likely will condition this year's fight on health care. That should help us better understand why Clinton failed, and the challenges the Obama Administration will face in the months ahead.

There is a stark historical fact about attempts to restructure domestic policy in a big way: they have a horrible track record. Typically, they either fail outright - or a small, incremental bill is passed in the place of the big, comprehensive reform the President initially envisioned. Presidents usually have lofty ambitions - but they are rarely successful in implementing them on the grand scales they envision, regardless of whether their party controls Congress.

Why is this?

Stanford University's Keith Krehbiel has the best answer. His Pivotal Politics is now 11 years old, but it is as relevant as ever. Krehbiel is interested in why gridlock is the norm - but that sometimes it can be broken, typically by large, bipartisan coaliations.

His answer is the relationship between the President and Congress, which he thinks is characterized by four "pivotal" players, whom Krehbiel arrays on a left-right dimension based on their policy preferences. These actors are the President, the median voter in Congress (i.e. the legislator who has half of Congress on his left and half on his right), the filibuster "pivot" (i.e. the legislator who has 2/5ths to his right and 3/5ths to his left), and the veto "pivot" (i.e. the legislator who has 2/3rd to his right and 1/3rd to his left). These players determine whether a bill becomes a law. They're not necessarily granted special powers or prerogatives, though they may happen to be committee chairmen or party leaders. They're important because of where their preferences sit in relation to the other legislators in Congress. If the filibuster pivot chooses to support a filibuster - it will necessarily be killed because there are enough Senators who also oppose it. He's the marginal member, which makes him the pivotal vote.

Let's take a hypothetical example. First, assume that all legislators have an ideal policy preference - and that this can be identified on a simple left-right scale. Second, assume that they're trying to legislate on some policy issue, on which there is a status quo (SQ) that an alternative bill (A) would change. These can also be put on the left-right scale.

One scenario might look like this.

Pivotal Politics in Action.jpg

How would the government resolve this issue? The median voter moves first, and supports the bill. It's not his first choice, obviously, but it's closer to his first choice than the status quo. This indicates that the bill gets the support of a center-left coalition. But then the filibuster pivot must make a choice. In this case, the bill is far from his ideal - farther than the status quo. Thus, he chooses to filibuster it - and the bill is killed by a right-leaning coalition in the Senate. The status quo wins. [Had the filibuster pivot supported the bill, it would have passed and the President would have to sign or veto it. If he had vetoed it - the veto pivot would then have to choose whether or not to override.]

Like any theoretical model, this simplifies reality a great deal. The real world is much more complex (we'll bring in some of these complexities tomorrow). Nevertheless - this model's explanatory power is quite great.

First, it helps explain why major legislative overhauls often fail. You can appreciate this yourself by playing around with different status quos and alternatives. Generally speaking, when the status quo is somewhere in the middle of the policy spectrum, it is extremely difficult to defeat it. Somebody - be it the president, the veto pivot, the median voter, or the filibuster pivot - will usually prefer the status quo to a given alternative.

Second, it helps explain why policy changes - when they happen - tend to be incremental. Again return to the above graph and play around with different scenarios. When you find an alternative that can beat the status quo, you'll probably note that it does not upend the world by that much.

Nevertheless, it does allow for major policy overhauls - like what we saw during the New Deal or the Great Society. What matters is the arrangement of the key players' preferences relative to the status quo. When preferences are relatively homogenous, and there is enough distance between those preferences and the status quo - significant changes in public policy can occur.

Third, it helps explain a peculiar finding noted by Yale's David Mayhew nearly twenty years ago (and updated just a few years back): significant legislation is approved with the same frequency, regardless of whether government is divided or united. Party control doesn't factor into legislative output. Similarly, the theory does not have much of a role for the legislative party, which doesn't coerce legislators to support bills for the sake of party unity. What matters are the preferences of the pivotal players. That, combined with the typical super-majority requirements of our system, implies that bipartisan coalitions are generally needed to get important bills passed. So, we shouldn't expect one-party control of government to make a significant difference.

The implication from this analysis is that, had Team Clinton improved their awful handling of the health care issue, they still very well could have failed. It wasn't simply a matter of tactics. The bottom line from the model is that comprehensive reforms such as the Clinton overhaul are hard to come by. Our system requires a great number of players to sign on - and that makes it difficult.

This year, a comprehensive health care overhaul is certainly possible. What matters is how the preferences of the pivotal players are arranged. I think it's fair to say that they correspond better this year than they have since at least 1993. The trick will be to find an alternative that they all prefer to the status quo. Historically speaking, that's been easier said than done.

Tomorrow, I'll continue this discussion by examining some of the features of the ongoing health care debate that I think are relevant, given today's general discussion.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Polarized America

The recent Pew poll has found that President Obama's job approval is the most polarized for any new President in forty years:

Pew Poll Data.gif

I have been critical of the President on this page for failing (so far) to live up to his promise of bipartisanship (see here, here, here, here, and here). It might be that Republicans have also noted this disconnection, and are disapproving accordingly.

However, this highly polarized evaluation of the President has deep roots. Pew notes:

The growing partisan divide in presidential approval ratings is part of a long-term trend. Going back in time, partisanship was far less evident in the early job approval ratings for both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. In fact, a majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Carter's job performance in late March 1977, and a majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Nixon's performance at a comparable point in his first term.

Polarization has been on the rise in other ways as well. For instance, in my first post-election wrap-up, I noted that statewide voting for president was becoming more polarized:

Polarized States.jpg

This polarization has also manifested itself in individual-level survey data. The following chart tracks the number of Democrat and Republican defectors in presidential elections.

Partisan Defectors.jpg

As we can see, Republican defectors have held roughly constant over the years - the only exceptions occurring in 1964 and 1992 (when most of the defectors went for Perot). Meanwhile, the number of Democratic defectors has declined over the last forty years, hitting its lowest point in 2004. It ticked back up in 2008, in large measure because of Obama's weakness among white Southern Democrats.

Generally, the same trend has been evident in congressional elections. In 1988, 17% of voters who backed their Republican candidate for Congress supported Michael Dukakis in the presidential election. In 2008, just 9% of those who voted GOP for Congress supported Obama. In other words, partisanship is not only doing a better job of predicting one's presidential vote, it's doing better with the congressional vote, too.

Meanwhile, there has been a rise in negative feelings toward the opposition. The following chart tracks how Republicans feel about the Democratic Party and Democrats feel about the Republican Party. A score of 100 implies completely positive feelings; 0 implies completely negative feelings; 50 implies neutrality.

Partisan Feelings.jpg

Partisans generally had negative feelings about the opposition in 1978, but since then they have become more so.

Unsurprisingly, this enhanced partisanship has manifested itself in the Congress, too. There has been increased ideological polarization, especially in the House - which the following graph tracks.

Ideology in the House.jpg

Much of the movement on the Democratic side has been due to the leftward shift of Southern Democrats, who are now almost as liberal as their Northern colleagues.

So, the bottom line is that party polarization has been on the rise - since before this President was even born. Of course, these Pew numbers show the greatest degree of polarization yet, which might be an indication that Republicans have noted the President's highly partisan approach, either his hard-knuckle tactics in dealing with the opposition or his policy proposals which have attracted precious few Republicans.

This governing style has drawbacks - not necessarily in the short-term, but over the long course of a presidency. From an institutional perspective, polarization can be a political winner for members of Congress - but it is often a loser for the President. After all, he is the one whose constitutional role is to represent all the people. This is a very difficult job because it is often the case that the people disagree with one another so deeply that the President cannot reflect their views and promote a policy agenda at the same time. Nevertheless, alienating a large faction of his constituency can eventually mean political trouble. A conservative congressman from Kansas can rail against big city liberals without fear of losing his job because he has no big city liberals in his district. But everybody is in the President's district, which means that highly partisan presidents can upset a sizable minority or their constituents, who might eventually create greater political trouble for him.

Polarization was quite high during the Clinton and Bush 43 years - and both of these men had very contentious tenures. President Clinton had to deal with a resurgent Republican Party that wanted significant changes in government, especially with the 1995 budget. Congressional Republicans eventually impeached him. President Bush alienated Democrats relatively early in his tenure, and by the end of his time in government he was isolated and ineffective. Ultimately, both men paid a political price for contributing to the rancor.

President Obama is also running this risk - not simply because his governing style has been highly partisan to date, but also because he explicitly promised during the campaign that it would not be. These Pew numbers are an early warning of his slide among Republicans. Obama is losing them now, just as Bush lost the Democrats early in his term. But Bush didn't just lose the Democrats - he alienated and even enraged them. Eventually, the political winds shifted against him, the permanent Republican majority turned out to be temporary, and resurgent Democrats backed him into a corner for the remainder of his term.

-Jay Cost

Public Financing Is Dead

In a recent interview with the Washington Times, John McCain made the following point:

Sen. John McCain, an architect of sweeping campaign-finance reform who got walloped by a presidential candidate armed with more than $750 million, predicts that no one will ever again accept federal matching funds to run for the nation's highest office.

"No Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that's dead. That is over. The last candidate for president of the United States from a major party that will take public financing was me," the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

The subtext of McCain's comment is a criticism of the Obama campaign. Much of this is valid, as the President explicitly promised to negotiate a deal with Senator McCain on public financing, but never did. However, the death of public financing cannot be pinned solely, or even mostly, on President Obama. It was a long time coming. In fact, I'd wager that some of the other '08 Republican contenders would have refused public financing if they had won the GOP nomination.

Ultimately, the big trouble with public financing is that it is not keeping up with the realities of electoral politics. There are two specific problems.

The first problem is timing. Senator McCain does not mention it (at least in the clip provided by the Washington Times), but one half of public financing has been finished for eight years. Presidential candidates are entitled to public financing in the primaries in the form of "matching funds." However, there is a catch. The government matches a portion of the money you receive from individual donors, but it also places a spending cap on you for the primary seasion, which does not technically end until the conventions.

This greatly damaged Bob Dole in 1996. Dole was stuck in a tough primary battle against Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander - and to win, he had to spend through most of his primary funds. This left him running on a bare-bones budget for months. Meanwhile, President Clinton was flush with cash, thanks to the fact that he was unopposed in his primary. The DNC, labor groups, and the Clinton campaign spent the spring and summer blasting Dole, who was unable to offer a response.

The primary financing system fails to account for the fact that the general election campaign now begins well before the conventions. After Dole was shellacked because of the system's antiquated notion of the general campaign, it was only a matter of time until the serious contenders balked at primary funds. George W. Bush refused them in 2000 and 2004 - as did John Kerry.

The second problem is quantity. John McCain - who also declined financing for the primaries - received $84 million in public money at the beginning of September. This is a paltry sum compared to how much a presidential candidate can potentially raise. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which tracks fundraising by the national party committees back to 1988.

Fundraising by National Party Committees.jpg

What is really amazing about this chart is that eliminationg soft money in 2004 did not reduce party fundraising. It slowed down its rate of growth, for sure, but in 2004 both parties raised more than they did in the last presidential cycle where soft money was allowed (2000).

You can chalk this growth up to increased party capacity to raise cash. The parties have become much more professional over the last twenty years, and thus more able to raise dollars. They also have access to new communications technology like the Internet. Another factor is likely the polarization of the electorate, especially among political elites who have the money to donate to politics. Now more than any time since the Great Depression, there are clear ideological differences between the parties. This distinctiveness gives people a greater stake in the outcome of the election - and possibly an enhanced incentive to contribute to the cause.

I'd also note that this chart only captures a fraction of the total federal dollars raised. Factor in the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by candidates for the House and Senate - which have also been on the rise over the years - and we can appreciate just how many potential dollars are out there. Above all, consider that Obama and Senator Clinton raised a combined $880 million during the 2008 campaign, and yet that did not stop the Democratic Party from smashing its previous fundraising records. Bottom line: the parties have found many new sources of money over the years, and the evidence implies that there are sources yet to be found.

So, why would a presidential candidate accept $85 million when s/he instead has the opportunity to raise hundreds of millions? Only a guy like John McCain - who had a hand in creating the current finance regime and who was honor bound to participate - was so obliged.

Ultimately, these two problems point to the same malady: the public financing system is outdated. It has not kept up with the evolving dynamics of the electoral campaign. The basics of public financing were created during a different era of presidential campaigning (via the 1974 amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act). The electoral campaign has changed drastically since then, but the financing system remains essentially the same. Its inability to fit the times has been evident for the last fifteen years or so - thus, it was only a matter of time before it would finally be discarded.

Until Congress updates the basic structure of public financing and/or the system is made mandatory, presidential candidates will skip it. It is so antiquated that it no longer serves their needs. A candidate who follows it will surely be made worse off if his opponent does not.

-Jay Cost

The Fight Over the Economy Is Just Beginning

In my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, I argued that true ideologues constitute a relatively small percentage of the public. But that is not to say that the broad middle of the nation does not have a core set of values that guides its political decisions. Among other things, it believes firmly in the idea of economic growth, and it isn't hesitant to punish politicians for weak economies.

The relationship between the electorate and the politicians is akin to Darth Vader and his lieutenants in The Empire Strikes Back. When the underlings failed Vader, he impatiently struck them down without a second thought, moving on to the next in command. Similarly, when politicians fail to deliver growth, the judgment of the electorate is just as swift and almost as brutal.

A Gallup poll conducted in 1999 found that 71% of the country approved of George H.W. Bush's job as president. Yet Mr. Bush had the misfortune of presiding over a downswing in the business cycle. Though the economy had been growing for six straight quarters by Election Day, unemployment was above 7%. He won just 37% of the vote. That 1990/91 recession also hurt his successor. In the early Clinton years, the economy grew and unemployment fell, but growth in real per capita income was slow to rebound. By the midterm, just 43% of voters approved of Clinton's handling of the economy, and the Democrats lost 52 House seats.

How's that for brutality? One (relatively mild) recession, and the public delivers harsh punishments to both parties years after growth returned. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

There are three lessons for today's politics. First, the country is impatient about growth. Recessions are virtually immoral in this country - and if growth is slow to return, or if its effects are slow to be felt by the average voter, the public will not take it lightly. The top line GDP number is not enough. If other indicators - like unemployment and real income, metrics that speak to how people are experiencing the economy - are still weak, the public's response can be just as wrathful.

Second, the public's diagnosis of the economic problem need not be enlightened. Imagine you lost your keys on a dark street. You'll look for them under the nearest streetlight - not because that's where they are, but because that's where you can see. That's how the electorate makes judgments about complicated subjects like the economy. It focuses on what it understands, whether or not that gets to the real issues. Recall the political damage George H.W. Bush suffered because he hadn't seen a price scanner before. Somehow, this meant he was out of touch, and thus not suited to bring the economy to recovery.

Third, Walter Shaprio recently suggested that Republicans will not gain from any populist backlash. I wouldn't be so sure. Out parties can make substantial, recession-related midterm gains despite having been led by unpopular presidents. Perhaps the best example is 1938. Amidst the "Roosevelt Recession," the country turned to the party of the reviled Herbert Hoover, who still had a negative rating in 1944. FDR's majority in the subsequent Congress depended entirely upon the old Confederacy - meaning that the GOP was the country's first choice outside the one-party South.

This links into the second point. The public lacks economic expertise, yet it must still assign blame for the struggling economy. It is unsurprising that - regardless of whether he deserves it - the President is often the recipient. After all, he is the most visible politician in the country. Additionally, Presidents are quick to accept credit for a flourishing economy, so inevitably they take the blame for when it languishes. When you blame the President and want a change, the opposition party is the only viable option.

While the current focus on Timothy Geithner, the Treasury, and the financial markets is understandable - this will probably not be the script of the broader political battle over the next 20 months. Assuming that the financial system is brought under control, the political debate will focus relentlessly on recession and recovery. Though the Administration, the CBO and the Blue Chip forecasters project modest growth in 2010 (ranging from 1.9% to 3.0%), all of them expect high unemployment (7.9% to 9.1%) and an economy performing below peak capacity. If these predictions are true - the corresponding public dissatisfaction will define the campaign of 2010, and the legislative battles that precede it.

Both sides will struggle to pin blame for the weak economy on the other. Republicans will indict President Obama, arguing that his policies failed to improve things. President Obama will remind voters of the previous administration, arguing that congressional Republicans advocate the same policies that brought about the recession. The public lacks the technical expertise to arbitrate based on the merits - so the outcome will depend in part on how bad the economy actually is (the worse it is, the worse for President Obama), and which side shows the greatest political acumen.

If you find this to be a dispiriting commentary on democratic accountability, think of it this way. Electoral justice might be rough, but it's also consistent: bad economies mean electoral defeat for somebody. Thus, those who are still in office when the dust settles learn a valuable lesson: grow the economy, or next time it could be you. In the long run, the public gets what it wants - a government dedicated first and foremost to growth.

-Jay Cost

A Response to Steny Hoyer on Earmarking

USA Today ran an editorial this morning advocating earmark reform and decrying the large number of earmarks in the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill the President intends to sign (without ceremony). As customary, the newspaper invited somebody with an opposing view to defend the process.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer answered the call, and proceeded to offer a series of non-sequiturs in defense of earmarking. I counted four distinct points in his response:

(1) It's critical to maintain the balance of power between the branches.
(2) Earmarking makes up a small share of the budget - the issue is largely symbolic and distracts the country from bigger problems.
(3) Republicans earmarked, too.
(4) Democrats have cut down on the number of earmarks, and have reformed aspects of the process.

I'd suggest that (1) and (3) are entirely irrelevant as a defense of the earmarking process. If anything, earmarks interfere with the executive branch as much as eliminating them would interfere with the legislative branch. The Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as:

[F]unds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.
So, the practice of earmarking is one where Congress plays the role not only of appropriator, but executor. As for (3), you betcha Republicans earmarked. And look where they landed: the 110th Congress sports the tiniest GOP caucus in 16 years.

Meanwhile, (2) and (4) actually conflict with each other. If this is a meaningless issue, then why have Democrats gone to such efforts to trim back earmarks?

It's easy to be critical of Mr. Hoyer here - for he is tasked with trying to defend what is essentially an indefensible process, at least from a national perspective. Earmarking is a perfect example of congressional particularism, which I discussed yesterday. Quite often, it is Congress spending money not for the sake of the public good, but for the good of particular constituents in the 435 districts or 50 states. If your perspective on public affairs is national - that is, you think that federal money should be spent according to national priorities - then the process is indefensible, as it allocates dollars not where they are most needed, but on the basis of the congressional log roll. You can only defend it on a local level. For instance, you can defend earmarks if your top concern is the good folks of Walla Walla, Washington and you want to make sure they get as much as possible (in a way with sufficient visibility that you can claim credit for district improvements and thereby enhance your reelection prospects!).

That, of course, is exactly the perspective of individual members of Congress. They are elected by local constituencies and tasked with advancing their interests in the legislature. As there is nobody elected to Congress by the country as a whole - the appropriate way to look at Congress is not as a national body, but as the meeting place of representatives from all the locales. It's a subtle distinction, but it's a crucial one - as it accounts for practices like earmarks.

Actually, I do agree with Hoyer on one point - earmarks are largely symbolic. However, I'd suggest that they symbolize something extremely important - congressional irresponsibility, which is broad-based and a genuine problem in our constitutional system. I'd define congressional irresponsibility as anything Congress does that favors a legislator's particular client group at the expense of the national interest. That doesn't just include earmarks. It can also include, for instance, Congress' habit of overfunding executive agencies beyond what the President requests. It includes the inefficiencies in the tax code, which legislators have created in part to help favored constituent groups. It includes the interest on the federal debt - which can be seen as the price we pay for past Congresses that refused to make tough choices like spending cuts or tax increases. It includes long festering issues - like entitlement reform - that Congress refuses to tackle because of the short-term electoral risk involved.

Yes, earmarks are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They receive the focus they do not because they are of critical import - but because of all the irresponsible things Congress does every session, earmarking is probably the most ridiculous. It's congressional irresponsibility "jumping the shark," which means crusaders can use it to grab the public's attention. But the public knows something bigger is wrong with the Congress. After all, just one in three Americans approve of the job it's doing, and that is a dramatic improvement in its public standing.

-Jay Cost

Congress Asserts Itself

One of the most interesting features of the new Obama administration, I think, is how assertive Congress has been. While Obama is, of course, the public face of the Democratic Party, and seen to be in charge of the government - it is undeniable that Congress has taken on a central role in running the country.

We saw our first glimpse of congressional power in the Obama years when the President allowed congressional Democrats to write the stimulus bill.

Today, two stories come out that show Congress plans to put its stamp on the Obama budget, too. First from the Washington Post about uneasy backbenchers:

Democratic leaders in Congress did not expect much Republican support as they pressed President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. But the pushback they are receiving from some of their own has come as an unwelcome surprise.

As the Senate inches closer to approving a $410 billion spending bill, the internal revolt has served as a warning to party leaders pursuing Obama's far-reaching plans for health-care, energy and education reform.

Those goals, spelled out in Obama's 2010 budget blueprint, continue to enjoy broad Democratic support. But as the ideas develop into detailed legislation, they will transform from abstract objectives into a tangle of difficult trade-offs.

The next comes from the New York Times on the authority committee chairs intend to exert on the Obama budget:

What the Democratic barons of Congress liked best about President Obama's audacious budget was his invitation to fill in the details. They have started by erasing some of his.

The apparent first casualty is a big one: a proposal to limit tax deductions for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of taxpayers. Mr. Obama says the plan would produce $318 billion over the next decade as a down payment for overhauling health care.

But the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees, Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, have objected to the proposal, citing a potential drop in tax-deductible gifts to charities. [snip]

Mr. Obama is taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda's details to these five veteran lawmakers and others in Congress, each with his own political and parochial calculations.

It's easy to forget when there is a presidential election followed by a new President, but Congress is Article One of the Constitution, and (to borrow a phrase) it is the "keystone of the Washington establishment." We look to the President for leadership, but we should never forget the vast powers that the Constitution has granted to the Congress.

The problem with Congress is that it is not actually a national body. Instead, it is the meeting place of representatives from the various, diverse locales that make up the nation. There is nobody in Congress who is actually responsible to the nation as a whole. This means that Congress cannot necessarily be counted upon to craft truly public policy. A given piece of legislation might benefit the 435 districts and the 50 states, but it's a fallacy of composition to suppose that it benefits the nation as a whole. That's how we account for all of this earmarking, which is quintessential congressional particularlism: legislating for the benefit for 435 districts and 50 states, but at the expense of the nation at large.

Additionally, Congress is an institution that prizes the rights of individual legislators - that's not just because of the filibuster, but also committee chairmen and now even subcommittee chairmen. There are a lot of critical legislators who have to sign off on a bill for it to become law. With so many "vetoes" in the body, there emerges another problem: the inclination for Congress to do nothing, to let problems persist. This is often an easier alternative than inducing a powerful committee chair to alter his position.

Ultimately, it is the job of the modern President to guide Congress toward a coherent outcome that benefits the whole country. The Presidency is the only elected office for which all of us vote - and so the President is the one who is responsible for the national interest. It's his job to see to it that Congress does not devolve into particularism, or gets mired in gridlock - but instead works for the public good. This is an exceedingly difficult task. After all, the Presidency is outlined in Article II. The power of the President has grown over the years, but that is because of growth in his informal powers, not the powers granted to him by the Constitution. Beyond vetoes, there is not a heck of a lot the Constitution empowers him to do. Everything beyond that requires the adroit use of the presidential mystique.

So, at the end of the day, the President's success in managing Congress comes down to political acumen. We'll soon see whether President Obama has it. Having the Congress be of the same party as the President helps - but as I have noted time and again on this page, and as these articles should make clear, there are limits to the bonds of partisanship. The parties are a modestly centripetal force in what is an essentially centrifugal system - and it is simply not enough to say that because the President and the congressional majority are Democrats, the President will get his way. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

-Jay Cost

Hill Democrats Demand Committee Power Back

The Hill reports this morning that Democratic backbenchers are now demanding the House committees get their power back.

A group of more than 50 House Democrats has penned a letter to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) imploring him to "restore this institution" and see that the House returns to a "regular order" process of legislating.

The letter, signed by a large number of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and the centrist New Democratic Coalition, has not yet been sent. Members are still gathering signatures in an effort to send the strongest signal possible to all top House Democrats that the caucus is up in arms over the top-down method of legislating employed by Democrats since late last year. [...]

Since last year, many senior House Democrats -- many of them subcommittee chairmen -- have grown overly frustrated with how only small and select bands of legislators have been responsible for writing bills, such as the $700 billion Wall Street bailout as well as much of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill.

Democratic leaders have acknowledged that the "regular order" process of methodically developing and writing bills in subcommittees and committees has been abandoned recently. But they have defended the handling of such sensitive and important legislation by only an exclusive group of leadership and senior lawmakers as a necessary tactic during exceptional times. [...]

Now at least 50 Democrats are calling the Speaker's hand.

"Committees must function thoroughly and inclusively, and cooperation must ensue between the parties and the houses to ensure that our legislative tactics enable rather than impede progress," the members wrote. "In general, we must engender an atmosphere that allows partisan games to cease and collaboration to succeed."

The House has not always had a strong committee system. "Uncle" Joe Cannon, for instance, was Speaker of the House from 1903 until 1911. He ruled with an iron fist, using the power of appointment to dominate the committees. Finally a group of insurgent Republicans, along with Democrats, revolted in 1911, stripped the Speaker of his power, and distributed it to the committees.

Committee power has ebbed and flowed over the years, but note the mentioning of subcommittee chairmen in the Hill writeup. Subcommittees have become increasingly important in the House as a way for members to develop policy expertise as well niche power bases. These days, if you chair a House subcommittee, your legislative domain is relatively small - but within that domain you typically have a great deal of power. [Actually, a great example of this power can be seen in Charlie Wilson's War.] Contrast this situation to the Senate, where fewer senators (but a policy domain as large as the House) means that senators must be generalists.

By legislating without the committees, Pelosi is upsetting the apple cart - and their response is a great reminder that, in this country, it is not partisanship above all else. The parties serve as a centripetal force in our system, centralizing power as our Constitution disperses it. However, partisanship in the government has its limits. Democratic and Republicans members of Congress are interested in protecting their own personal power because, ultimately, they stand for reelection as individuals. These backbenchers (and note that ideologically, they seem to be to the right of Pelosi) want their power bases back, and apparently are willing to embarrass (just slightly!) their Speaker by making a public demand.

-Jay Cost

Clyburn on health care

This story from the Hill is noteworthy:

A prominent House Democrat said he doesn't expect a comprehensive healthcare reform bill to pass Congress in 2009, saying an incremental approach to covering the uninsured would be better "than to go out and just bite something you can't chew."

House Majority Whip James Clyburn's (D-S.C.) timeline on tackling healthcare is at odds with the timetable proposed by Senate Democrats and could represent a major shift in the House Democrats' strategy of dealing with the uninsured.

During an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that aired on Sunday, Clyburn said he doesn't anticipate that comprehensive healthcare legislation will be approved in 2009.

The early Clinton administration tried comprehensive health care reform after a tough battle on its deficit reduction package, and it lost. Perhaps there is concern that the Obama administration might have similar trouble? That wouldn't be a huge surprise. Health care was not a top issue in the recent election, so it is hard to argue that President Obama has a public mandate on comprehensive reform. That means that the public debate on the issue would have to be held - and the opposition would surely be mobilized. I'd be on that opposition being stiff - comprehensive reform is going to change the way a lot of different types of people do business - and all of those who see themselves as losers (be it doctors, nurses, drug manufacturers, patient advocacy groups, whatever) would try to stop it.

Clyburn suggests a different way forward for Democrats on the issue:

While noting he does not know exactly when President Obama want to move forward with a universal healthcare measure, Clyburn said, "If you take what we've done with [the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill] and then you follow with [more spending] on community health centers, you would have gone a long way to building a foundation upon which to build a universal access healthcare program.

That's incrementalism, which doesn't have the sex appeal of "comprehensive" reform but seems to me to be a much sounder political strategy. If you go step-by-step, rather than taking it all in one giant leap, you run a lower risk of arousing opposition.

-Jay Cost

The Politics of the Bailout Bill

The results of Monday's vote on the bailout bill, HR 3997, contain some illuminating patterns. A few people have noted that members of Congress facing competitive elections tended to vote against the bill. This is true, and significant. The roll call yielded some other important tendencies.

The following picture examines how Republican members of Congress voted by state: red indicates a nay vote, green a yay vote, and yellow a split result.

Republicans Vote.jpg

Let's break GOP support down by region.

For what it's worth, the remaining New England Republican, Chris Shays, voted in support of the bill. Support in the mid-Atlantic region was mixed. Pennsylvania and New Jersey Republicans voted against the bill. Opposition in the Keystone State among Republicans was particularly strong. However, New York Republicans were more supportive, with every member except Randy Kuhl voting in favor.

Republicans in the South Central region showed mixed support. GOP caucuses in Arkansas (aka John Boozman), Mississippi (aka Chip Pickering), and Alabama supported it. However, that was balanced by strong opposition in Tennessee, Louisiana, and especially Texas. Only four Republicans from the President's home state supported the bill.

South Atlantic Republicans also exhibited mixed support. Mike Castle of Delaware supported it, the two Republicans in Maryland split, and South Carolina voted in the affirmative. However, the bill was strongly opposed in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.

Opposition was very stiff in the Midwest, where ten of ten Republican caucuses voted in the negative. There was unanimous opposition in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Even in Ohio, home state of Republican leader John Boehner, seven Republicans voted against the bill.

Republican support in the West was split: there was opposition in Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, but more favorable results in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.

What about the Democrats?

Democrats Vote.jpg

The leadership was able to extract a reasonable amount of discipline from Democrats on the east coast - with only Vermont, New Hampshire, and Georgia defecting from the party line.

Meanwhile, the bill again ran into trouble in the Midwest. Midwestern Democrats were more amenable than their Republican counterparts - particularly in the upper midwest. But Indiana Democrats voted nay, and Democrats in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan all split their votes. Mountain West Democrats voted heavily against the bill. And in California, Nancy Pelosi's home state, 15 of 36 Democrats voted against the bill.

The maps don't show it, but of the 19 members of Congress who represent New York City, parts of Long Island, or Westchester, there was just a single defection, José Serrano of the Bronx. The bill also received very strong support from members whose districts are near Washington, D.C. However, support was mixed in Los Angeles and Chicago, where all three South Side members (Jesse Jackson, Jr., Dan Lipinski, and Bobby Rush) voted in the negative.

A final note on the bill. The vote among members of the House Financial Services Committee broke along party lines. 25 of 37 Democrats voted in favor, while just 8 of 33 Republicans supported the bill. If members on the floor rely upon fellow partisans in the relevant committees for voting cues - perhaps it is no surprise that House Democrats followed Financial Service Democrats, and Republicans followed Financial Service Republicans.

This data presents an interesting perspective on the politics of the current financial crisis. Certainly it demonstrates the accuracy of the hackneyed "Main Street versus Wall Street" cliché . While metro Washington and New York members were strongly in support, the bill was hard pressed to find supportive members in the Midwest.

And yet both presidential candidates are running through the heartland advocating its passage. That's somewhat surprising when you think about it. It indicates to me that the politics of this issue do not directly favor one candidate over the other. Certainly, neither candidate is on the "right" side of public opinion. Remember: while the polls show mixed support for the bill, they do not measure intensity - which can matter in situations like this. If 30% is lukewarm in its support, 30% is uncertain, and 30% is dead-set against, as a political matter, the public is opposed.

So why have McCain's numbers been sliding? The mainstream media will tell you it is because of his foolish political gamble. He headed back to Washington and looked bad doing so. I don't think that's it at all, though I agree he did not look good. This argument assumes that average voters poured over every word of press reports (written by mainstream media people!) and carefully meditated upon every keenly insightful utterance on the Sunday talk shows (dominated by the chatter of mainstream media people!) to tease out who made the politically smart move. I don't buy that (self-serving!) explanation for a minute. [N.B. Ever notice how MSM political analysis always seem to place the MSM in the center of the battle?]

I think McCain has suffered a deterioration in his poll position for a simple reason: he's the Republican. George W. Bush is the President of the United States. He is responsible for the state of the nation. He's not held in good esteem right now, and he's a Republican. From a public opinion perspective, it does not matter so much that the Democrats control Congress. The buck stops with Bush; Bush is a Republican; McCain is a Republican; McCain suffers.

A related factor could be that Bush is simply more noticeable than he was a few weeks ago. The President has done a good job hiding himself during the presidential campaign. Presumably, he knows that his presence hurts McCain, so he's taken himself out of the public's view. But now he's back on the television, on the front pages, giving prime time speeches, and so on. I think this has hurt McCain's numbers as much as anything.

Here's a thought experiment to mull. Take 100 undecided voters and expose them to an hour of clips of George W. Bush talking. How many of them will lean Obama at the end of the hour? More than half, I'm guessing, which is why McCain needs this issue, and George W. Bush, off the front pages as soon as possible. McCain's trajectory to victory has always relied upon Bush falling out of public view. Up until this crisis, Bush seemed happy to oblige the Republican nominee. But this has put Bush front-and-center, which inherently helps Barack Obama.

-Jay Cost

The Awful Task of Governance

There is a strange tension in the American political party. It strives to achieve a governing majority. That is its goal. But a governing majority is nothing but a hassle. It cannot accomplish much more than half measures, watered-down versions of what it promised, or symbolic gestures that change nothing at all. Eventually, its supporters catch on to this impotence, and they come to loathe it, decrying its members as dime-a-dozen politicians who squandered the public trust. So, I can't help but ask: why bother?

Of course, like a salmon swimming upstream, the party does bother. It works tirelessly to acquire 218 Reps or 51 Senators, even though it knows (or it should know) what awaits it upon "victory." And what awaits the party is one of the inevitable features of our system: it thwarts, stymies, and frustrates governing majorities. It was designed to do exactly that. Think about all of the various idiosyncrasies of our system that you first learned in eighth grade. The filibuster, the bicameral legislature, the tripartite government, federalism, the Connecticut Compromise, and so on. None of them are accidental. They all combine to make it excruciatingly difficult for the majority to accomplish anything of lasting substance. All of these have the effect of dispersing power.

The function of the political party is to concentrate power just enough so that the government can actually work. This is one reason why all of the original Framers ended up as party men. When it came time to solve the first problems of the young republic - it was soon discovered that a long-term coalition, built around a few basic principles, was a necessary expedient to coordinate activity across our very diverse government. What was needed was some kind of centripetal force in our system to collect at least some of the power that the Constitution disperses. Without such a force, our system would do little more than enforce the status quo. Thus, the party caucus was born. This remains the job of the political party to this day: to concentrate power by coordinating the actions of governmental agents with similar views.

But, unlike in other countries, our parties are, in a sense, working against our Constitution. As I said, the parties collect what the Constitution has dispersed. This means they must find a way to govern despite all of the impediments put in place to do so. The net result is a party whose power is accordingly diminished. Add five to zero, and you get five. Add five to negative three, and you get only two. That is the difference between the American system and other systems of democratic government.

A real problem for the party is that its campaign rhetoric never seems to match what it is actually capable of doing once it gets its hands on the majority. Every cycle, Democrats and Republicans promise all sorts of things that they cannot possibly deliver because the parties are simply not powerful enough to deliver them. This is a problem that the Democrats have been having in this Congress, as the Wall Street Journal observed today:

The way in which Senate Democrats wavered and then consented to the confirmation of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general reflects the party's broader struggle to make headway on its national-security agenda, despite President Bush's unpopularity.

On questions such as Mr. Mukasey's stance on waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the war in Iraq, Democrats have been stymied by Republicans in Congress and the White House. That has sparked frustration among supporters, especially those on the left, who anticipated that last year's congressional takeover would force some policy changes.

These dashed expectations are one reason polls give Congress an approval rating lower than Mr. Bush's. The difficulties faced by Democrats on these issues look certain to complicate the party's bid to expand House and Senate majorities and regain the White House in 2008, a wartime election in which national security will be a major issue.

Democrats acknowledge the difficulty in speaking up for civil liberties while maintaining a tough stand on homeland security and terrorism.

Welcome to American governance, Democrats. It's one of the most frustrating jobs you can have. You are running a system whose designers intended to thwart you. And so, even though you have the majority, and you face a president whose numbers have been in the gutter for more than two years, you still cannot seem to do what you want to do.

This follows quite logically from the Madisonian design. Power is dispersed in our government so that no single faction, even if it is a majority (e.g. the liberal Democrats), can achieve its policy goals if those goals are "narrow." The only way these goals can be achieved is if a broad coalition, comprised of multiple factions (e.g. the liberal Democrats, the moderate Democrats, and the moderate Republicans), accept these goals and coordinate their actions to implement them. In this way, no faction can impose its will on another faction unduly - and true republican government is thereby preserved.

Most people look at articles like the one in today's Wall Street Journal, and ask, "Why can't they just get things done?" This is the answer: "James Madison didn't want them to!" Our system is designed to keep "things" from getting done. It's all right there in Federalist #10 and #51. They are the key to understanding the way our government works. If you can accept Madison's penchant for the run-on sentence - you'll find that these two documents answer most of your questions.

A question that has been on my mind in recent months is the following. Presumably, politicians know that they cannot get things done in our system. So why is it that, during the electoral campaign, they make promises that they know they cannot keep? I have sketched out some answers to this question - and in the next few days or so, I'll offer my thoughts on this blog.

-Jay Cost

The Larry Craig Problem

It appears as though Larry Craig has decided to remain in the United States Senate. I imagine that many people - among whom I count myself - are not entirely bothered by this. It seems to me that Craig's crime did not fit the punishment of effective expulsion. What does bother me is his behavior since the story broke. It is very clear that Craig has been quite irresponsible to his party since the news of his bathroom indiscretion became public.

I would grant that Craig's party was irresponsible to him first. Five terms in the House and three terms in the Senate apparently count for very little in a Republican caucus that seems unable to handle its fears of further electoral losses. The Senate GOP's treatment of Craig had the stink of desperation from moment one. So, maybe they had this coming.

I think that there is a larger lesson to learn from what I'm calling the "Larry Craig Problem." The problem is just a species of a general problem that plagues both major parties. I hinted at it around the time that the story broke. There are real limits to the power of the American political party. We talk about the political party as though it is indeed quite powerful. Media elites tend to do this as much as any of us. But it is actually not that powerful.

Who has the real power in American politics? Individual office holders do. The Larry Craig Problem is a case in point. What, in reality, could the Republican Party actually do to Larry Craig? The answer: very little! The caucus leadership could take his committee posts away - but that is about it. Anything else they do amounts to shaming him in public - but the effect of this is obviously quite limited (could Craig be shamed any more?), and shaming Larry Craig means shaming the Republican Party, too.

This is why I choose to use the word "irresponsible." Our party system is irresponsible for the simple reason that individual office holders are simply not responsible to the broader party - either to the party leadership itself, the ideological philosophy around which the party is organized, or the voters who are regular supporters of the party. A stubborn legislator like Larry Craig can thumb his nose at his party all he wants. Ultimately, the consequences for his insolence will be small.

There are a number of reasons for this fact. I will not bore you with a laundry list. But I will say that the first reason is the Constitution itself. Our Constitution is what Richard Hofstadter once called a Constitution against parties. Our Framers were all anti-party men when they wrote the Constitution - and this fact continues to limit the power that the party can exercise in American politics. And so, while the power of the party has ebbed and flowed over the years - only in a few moments and in constrained ways could the major American party be called powerful.

In light of this, we can tease out a larger insight from the Larry Craig Problem. Larry Craig is not responsible to the Republican Party. He can essentially do what he wants - and the GOP has very few ways to control his behavior. So it goes with all legislators. Accordingly, is it any surprise that conservatives would eventually find that the Republican Party is behaving irresponsibly toward them? The party cannot control the behavior of its members - so how can it make members adhere to conservative principles? What can the "Congressional GOP" do? Ultimately, it is at the mercy of its own members and their electoral ambitions. The "Congressional GOP" is little more than a heuristic device for the 250 or so individuals in Congress who have chosen to stick an "R" at the end of their names.

Ultimately, we see here the shortsightedness of the electoral strategy of today's office seekers. Office seekers have a short term electoral interest in making it seem like they are in some sense responsible to a broader entity like "the party." Not all voters like this idea, of course. But some voters do. So, the legislative strategy that the professional office seeker chooses is to tell the voters who like the idea of the office seeker being responsible to the party that he will be responsible to the party, and to tell those who do not like the idea that he will not be.

To those who like the idea of responsibility, the sales pitch "The Republican Party stands for tax cuts and limited government!" has a great deal of meaning. The implication behind it is that if you vote for individual members of that party, you are empowering the party itself. But in fact you are not really doing that at all. To think that you are is to commit the fallacy of composition. You are falsely infering that the party is something more than the aggregation of individuals elected to Congress who happen to carry this party label. So, in the long run party leaders cannot enforce members to adhere to any kind of party platform. Those members "cheat" on that platform whenever it is in their electoral interests to do so. And, sooner or later, the platform becomes a dead letter, having been overwhelmed by the number of times the members of the party played a hand in defeating their own platform. And, you the voter who believed the initial campaign pitch are left disappointed.

The way people look at the Republican Party today is fundamentally different than the way I look at it. Others see it as a party that has failed to live up to the spirit of the Contract with America. The 2007 party failed the 1994 party. I think that misses the point. I think the 1994 party made promises that it could never possibly have delivered - and so the party of 2007 was in some sense inevitable. I see the Contract with America as little more than a rhetorical device that promised something it could not possibly deliver - responsible party government. Why? Because the document, and the "revolution" it represented, did nothing to alter the relationship between the party leadership and the individual candidates for office. And so it was a revolution that was always predicated upon whether the electoral interests of individual Republican office seekers aligned with the organizing principles of the revolution.

As anybody who has studied American government for a day knows, this is a thin premise upon which to found a revolution. The revolution succeeds or fails based upon whether it will help candidates get elected - so my money is on it failing sooner or later!

Ultimately, this is a problem that plagues both parties. Ambitious office seekers have an interest in promoting the fiction of responsibility - regardless of the party to which they belong. Democratic office seekers have an interest in communicating to (certain) voters that if you vote for your local Democrat, you will somehow be empowering the Democratic Party to do Democratic things. But really this is not true. A vote for your local Democrat is nothing more than a vote to give your local Democrat the privilege to vote with or against Democrats from other localities once he is in Congress. Democratic things will occur if and only if enough Democrats happen to find the same things in their electoral interests.

And so - you will get responsible party government if and only if enough individual partisans find it to be in their individual electoral interests to enact the party platform. In other words, responsible party government is conditioned upon the uniformity of legislative preferences - and therefore the uniformity of preferences in the electorate. In reality then, responsibility is always and everywhere predicated upon electability.

I think this is why the Republican Congress spent like drunken sailors on shore leave through most of their time in the majority. Of course, they all have anti-spending principles. But most all of them (like most all of us!) value their jobs above their principles. And most all of them recognized that sending money home to the district was a necessity if they wished to keep their jobs. So, they spent. And there was no Republican "ombudsman" to stop them from spending - the fact that the campaign arms of the party make it seem to voters like there is such an ombudsman is just a fiction to keep the true believers on board through the end of the current electoral cycle.

I take this to be all part and parcel of our original founding document, and the dirty little secret of American government that it embodies: nobody is actually in charge of our country. No one person. No group of persons. Power is dispersed to multiple groups. The parties do some work to organize power so that the mechanics of government can operate - but the function that the parties really serve is far, far different from what they make their hard core supporters think they serve.

-Jay Cost

On the MoveOn Ad

I am moving out of town on Saturday - and so have not had much of an opportunity to blog, but I did want to comment on the ad that MoveOn.org ran in the New York Times. Politically, it was obviously pretty bad for congressional Democrats. It was something that was foisted upon them, and it was something that they paid a price for. I find it fascinating that an outside group could have such an effect on the Party of Jackson - and I took the whole affair as an example of how our political parties have fallen into decline, and how the consequence of this decline has led to a kind of civic incoherence.

Groups like MoveOn exist largely to serve functions that the political parties used to serve, but no longer serve. They used to be unimaginable - the Democratic Party once did all of the things that MoveOn now does. But over the last sixty years, the nature of our electoral politics have changed. The parties no longer serve so many functions. The functions still need to be served. And so up pop groups like MoveOn.

There are many reasons for this decline in the power of the parties. One reason is that the federal government has sought systematically to weaken them. The parties have been castigated as enemies of true democracy, and hamstrung accordingly. Were it not for the free association clause of the First Amendment, some good-government do-gooder types would have outlawed them years ago.

The consequence of this is, as I said, the out-sourcing of the functions that the parties used to serve. In many respects, this has been a good thing. Multiple points of access to our political system provide us all with a lot of benefits - but there are also a few drawbacks, some of which are quite significant. We saw one of them this week with the MoveOn ad. It was an ad that the Democrats did not endorse and would not have endorsed if given the chance. It was an ad that gave the GOP an opportunity to shift the debate - from talk about the course of the war to talk about the war's opponents. It was entertaining political theater, but it meant that the political conversation of the week was more incoherent than it should have been. Because of the ad, different people were talking about different things. There was far too much cross-talk. This is a shame, considering the importance of the conversation.

And this is a typical consequence of weakened parties replaced by multiple outside groups. All of these groups come to the conversation with slightly different points to make. And so, our political discussion is one in which there is frequently no consistent, coherent agenda. The conversation is quite unmanaged. Instead, everybody says whatever it is they want to say. While an absence of such an agenda gives more people an opportunity to say their peace, it reduces the chances that anything of real value will come from the discussion. Cross-talk rarely produces coherent policy outputs.

E.E. Schattschneider, one of the most insightful students of the political parties, once said that American democracy is unthinkable without them because they set the agenda of our government. Parties that are responsible set the agenda in a way that is relevant and coherent. That is, they make it so that our national political conversation regards issues that are of importance to citizens, and that can result in real solutions to these pressing problems. Weakened parties, like those of today, lack the capacity to set the agenda. One of the consequences of this is incoherence. Without the parties managing what gets said, everybody says whatever they want to say, and we have nothing but crosstalk. Politics reduces to an extended episode of Hardball. And, just like in Hardball, nothing of importance is ever accomplished. Everybody just yells across one another.

-Jay Cost

On Craig's Change of Heart

I had decided to avoid the Larry Craig story because I found myself appalled - not only by what Craig confessed to doing, but also the way the media covered it. I thought that the story symbolized the impoverished nature of today's political journalism.

But, in the last few days, the story has taken a turn - and there are some interesting insights to tease out of it. Namely, Craig is now considering not resigning:

Just when Republicans thought things could not get much worse for their scandal-stained party, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig leaked word Tuesday night that he is reconsidering his abrupt plan to resign from the Senate in the wake of his arrest in a police sex sting operation.

Top Republican strategists were neither delighted nor amused by the senator's decision to rethink retirement after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct following his arrest in a Minnesota airport men's bathroom.

While I find this surprising, I must say that I am not totally surprised. It makes sense to me that, after a few days to think soberly about his situation, Craig is having a change of mind. I think he's asking himself, "If I stay, what can they really do to me?"

Journalists and pundits usually assume that the political party is a powerful organization with control over members like Craig. This is not really true. In fact, political scientists generally adhere to two theories about today's political party - one theory governs our understanding of the party-in-office, and another theory governs our understanding of the party-in-elections.

The first is known as "conditional party government." The idea is that the party leadership (at least in the House) is powerful because the policy preferences of the members in the caucus are closely aligned. The caucus empowers the leadership to do the caucus will. But this empowerment is limited. Rarely, for instance, do you see the caucus leadership impose punishments on legislators who vote the wrong way. Instead, the caucus leadership exercises power through agenda setting and committee assignments.

The second theory is known as the "party in service." The idea is that, in the contemporary electoral campaign, the party does not exercise power over candidates. Rather, it helps them get elected. This is mostly because candidates - especially incumbents - can acquire the nomination without the blessing of the party leadership, and can raise funds independent of the party leadership. Candidates do not really depend upon the party organization anymore, so the organization has lost the ability to exercise power over them.

How does this relate to Craig? Simply stated, the kind of formal power that the party can exercise over a sitting senator like Craig is pretty minimal. The press painted the picture as if the party was "leaning" on Craig to exit the Senate. However, there is very little leaning the party could actually do beyond threatening to go after his reputation. Case in point: there were reports that the RNC was planning to issue a statement calling on Craig to resign. This is actually a symbol of the RNC's impotence over a guy like Craig. That strategy punishes Craig by attacking his reputation, but it also punishes the RNC to a great degree. After all, the national committee must suffer the ignominy of calling on one of its own to resign for ignominious behavior. Beyond these sorts of Pyrrhic strategies that attack his reputation, the party is left with very little more than taking away his committee assignments and working to defeat him in next year's primary. But, of course, his defeat is a foregone conclusion, regardless of what the party does.

By and large, the party lacks the formal power to force a sitting member of Congress to exit the chamber. Its power is really limited to attacking his reputation - at a cost to itself. And this is why I am less-than-shocked that Craig is thinking about changing his mind. He probably recognizes that, should he stay, there is very little his fellow partisans can do to him other than sully his reputation. Because his reputation is so sullied already, this is not much of a punishment. In fact, from Craig's perspective, his best bet might be to stay in the chamber so that, should he win an appeal, he might use his status as a sitting senator to get more attention paid to his legal victory, and therefore get his good name restored much more fully.

-Jay Cost

The Politics of Impeachment

I read with rapt attention Dan Gerstein's column in this week's Politico. It discussed the politics of impeachment. Specifically, it reviewed the desire of the left to impeach President Bush as a way to end the war. Gerstein notes the anger of the Democratic base at the congressional caucus' inability to end the war, and then explains:

That helps explain how impeachment--the true nuclear option--rather suddenly made the quantum leap from the mutterings of the Mother Jones set to the latest rallying cry of the party's increasingly powerful Netroots bloc. The progressive community increasingly does not trust the national party leadership to take on the president, so more and more of them are coming to believe that the only option is to take him out.

Gerstein clearly thinks it is a bad idea, and he intends in his next column to review the case against it, which should not be hard. The biggest problem with impeachment is that the Democrats will never land a conviction. There is no way they could acquire the 2/3rds majority in the Senate. So, impeachment will not end the war. Another major problem - I know that it looks to many Democrats that the President has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors," but many Americans would see the case against Bush as being quite weak. The last impeachment looked to many voters to be a partisan side-show, and it did according damage to the Republican Party. This might do the same to the Democrats. Finally, the fact that impeachment would move from "off the table" to "on the table" without any good reasons would make it look all the more like a political stunt, and therefore an attempted coup (because, after all, to end the war - Cheney would have to be impeached, too).

To be frank, I think the Democratic base is acting irrationally. Before my Democratic readers get up-in-arms over this comment, let me say that I mean it in a narrow sense of the word. Impeachment is an irrational strategy. "Irrational" can apply to people, and therefore whether they are endowed with reason - but it can also apply to strategies, and therefore whether they will achieve the goals the strategist wishes them to achieve. I mean "irrational" in the latter sense of the word. As in, impeachment is a manifestly irrational strategy in pursuit of the goal of ending the war. It will not accomplish the goals the Democratic base wishes to accomplish. Indeed, it would set those goals further back.

The anger of the Democratic base is neither surprising nor all that unique. They are not the first, nor the last, passionate group of active citizens to have had their desires quashed by what amounts to the super-majority requirement of our system. Unfortunately for the left, the Iraq War is the status quo - and our system's status quo bias is very, very great. This is why the Democrats have not been successful in stopping the war. They need about 30% of the Republican caucus to support them - and they simply do not have it.

How, then, did the base come to believe that the Democrats could end the war? The answer is obvious - this is what the Democrats told them! This is why the anger is neither surprising nor unique. Strategic politicians looking for votes promised them more than they could deliver. This seems to be an endemic feature of our politics: politicians over-sell, voters are left disappointed and frustrated. Next week, I will investigate it in more detail.

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 3

In Tuesday's installment of this essay, I argued that the involvement of the political party in our electoral process is a potentially beneficial feature of our politics - and that, because our campaign finance laws treat the party as an enemy, rather than an ally, of good government, they fail to make use of them. In Wednesday's installment, I argued that the involvement of the political party in our election process is inevitable, and because our campaign finance laws ignore this fact and foolishly try to squelch the involvement of the party, they end up producing unwanted and inefficient results. I went on to sketch a brief four-point campaign finance law that I would support over the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

Today, I would like to explain why I have no soft money contributions to the political party in my scheme. First off, let me specify exactly what I mean. As Mr. Smith rightly notes, soft money is simply money not limited by the "hard" law of the FECA. And so, when I say that I would have no soft money to the party or the candidate, what I mean is that I would limit the amount that any group or individual could give to a party. It is my preference for this limitation that induces me to oppose the kind of soft money giving to the party that characterized the end of the FECA regime - in which individuals, unions, and corporations would give six-to-seven figure amounts to party units.

On Tuesday I argued that the involvement of the party in elections is potentially beneficial. And yesterday I argued that it was inevitable. The implication from these two points is that the party is not necessarily going to act in a way to induce what I have been calling responsible party government. The party does not have a compelling interest in responsible party government. Rather, it has a compelling interest in electoral victory - and it is this interest that can be molded, by institutions like campaign finance laws, into a foundation for responsible party government.

Only once - so far as I know - has a successful reform movement made conscious and explicit use of the democratizing power of the political party, and this was the Democratic reform of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. [N.B. You can always identify a professional student of the political parties by where he places Martin van Buren - the founder of the first mass American political party - in his ordering of American presidents. He's in my top ten!]

For long stretches of our nation's history, this natural inclination of the party to be involved yielded bad results. In the age of the political machine - which can be dated broadly from 1865 to 1932 - the government failed to induce parties to act responsibly. Instead, party involvement meant patronage, plutocratic control over nominations, local elections that only rarely concerned the major problems of the day, and uninspiring and unworthy political leaders.

So, we cannot be Pollyannaish about the role of the party. The party is a potential ally of good democratic governance - but we must remember that this is not because the party shares our interest in it. It is, rather, because the interest of the party - to win elections - can be used for our interest of good governance. Accordingly, we must be mindful of the laws that govern party behavior because bad laws might, just like the FECA and the BCRA, thwart our objective of obtaining democratic accountability.

Thus, I would limit contributions to the party. It is one such rule in a package of reforms to induce the party to compete responsibly. My logic for that position is as follows.

The party's principal goal is electoral victory. In the political economy of today's electoral campaign, victory at the ballot box requires television advertising, which in turn requires money. And so, in pursuit of its quest for electoral victory, the political party is in pursuit of money.

I argued on Tuesday that one of the powers of the party is to set the political agenda, to frame the debate of the campaign. This is the lynchpin of responsible party government - the party establishes this agenda in a way that is salient, relevant, and unambiguous such that voters have clear choices over vital issues on Election Day. I have argued here that we should not expect the party to do this spontaneously. The party's interest is not in democratic accountability, it is in electoral victory.

Meanwhile, empirical evidence - which I referenced in my original article - has shown that contributions to politicians do not buy votes. Rather, they buy time - that is, they help set the agenda: politicians receive money from PACs, and in response they think a little longer and a little harder about the issues the PACs want them thinking about.

Thus, the concern with unlimited contributions to the party is that they might induce it to set the agenda in a way that is irresponsible. In other words, the party's need for money might influence it to accept large contributions and, in return, alter its campaign agenda to satisfy the donor at the expense of the electorate's interest in clear contrasts on vital issues. So, for instance, I would have a problem with a large contribution to a party from a telecommunications firm. As a highly dissatisfied, nay disgruntled, cell phone user, I think that telecommunications reform is badly needed. Americans as a whole might very well feel similarly. The only way our democratic institutions could induce our governmental institutions to take action is if the party places telecommunications reform on the electoral agenda. A large contribution from a telecommunications firm could very well induce it to keep it off the agenda. Might the party do this? Absolutely. Remember, its interest is in electoral victory - not maximum democratic accountability. If it wagered that the money from the firm was worth more to its electoral goal than the issue of telecommunications reform being party of its campaign pitch, it would be rational for the party to accept the money and take the issue off the agenda.

This is why I am particularly concerned about large contributions by entities to both the Republicans and the Democrats. A contribution to one induces one to keep it from its agenda. The other might still be induced to place it on its agenda - indeed, it may be more induced, as it can now make an issue out of the contribution. However, a contribution to both could induce both to keep an issue off the agenda of both - thus effectively silencing the public on the matter.

This is the point that I was trying to make in my original essay. Democratic government is simply unthinkable without the political party. The party places, or does not place, items on the agenda of the public, whose response is limited to a simple "Yes" or a simple "No." If the party is influenced not to place a certain item on the agenda, then the public will necessarily have no say on what the government does on that matter. We might think of the party as the translator of the public. Its voice is unintelligible to governmental officials without the help of the party. What happens to a foreign speaker if his translator has been paid by a third party not to translate his opinion regarding certain matters? He loses the ability to communicate on those matters. He has lost his voice to the third party, who has "bought" his translator.

So, I think we must limit party contributions. These contributions could buy for an individual or a group what no private person or group has a right to buy - namely, the ability to set the national agenda. We need to make contribution allowance limits large enough to reduce the pressure on the party to find the resources that are necessary to compete. However, we need to limit them so that individuals and groups who contribute to a party are doing so because they agree with that party's issue proposals, not because they want to direct what the party places before the public for consideration. If private groups wish to place an item before the public - or to take an item off the public agenda - let them engage in electioneering, let them participate in the marketplace of ideas that is the political campaign. I would place no limits on that, provided that consumers of their ideas can clearly identify the source behind them. It is only the party that I would prevent from being able to take unlimited funds from a single entity.

Philosophically, this distinction between the party and other political actors rests upon the recognition that the political party plays a unique role in our society. No other entity is in a position to set the political agenda as the party is. The party is not merely another political action committee. We need to recognize that the political party is a private and public institution. It is a private institution in many respects (Pat Leahy would be little-girl-giddy if the FOIA applied to internal RNC communications!), but, in its control over the national agenda, it nevertheless serves a vital public function. We must recognize that it does, and we must work to encourage it to serve this function as well as it is able.

What else might induce responsible agenda-setting? One way to influence the party to set the agenda responsibly is to engender robust competition for as many elections as possible. This will activate and energize the voters, making them think more closely and carefully about politics. An activated and energized electorate means one that is thinking about its problems, and how political solutions might ameliorate them. This induces the party to craft relevant issue positions. My intuition is that ending the limits to party contributions to candidates would have this effect. Currently, the party is only able to contribute without limits if the expenditures are "independent," which essentially implies television advertising. This, in turn, means that candidates are on their own in developing the organizational sophistication sufficient to make them competitive. It is only when a candidate has made himself competitive that the party will begin to participate in the campaign. It can do only a small amount to help the candidate become competitive. It cannot, for instance, give the candidate the cash to hire a fundraising specialist. If we eliminate the caps on party contributions to candidates - my intuition is that the party will use its newly found freedom to "seed" more competitive candidates by helping them acquire the kinds of capacities that a winning candidate needs. This, in turn, will probably influence more dynamic and better-qualified individuals to campaign for office.

Overall, this would make for better-run campaigns and thus more competitive electoral contests. Who doesn't want that? Incumbents, of course! The legislators who have imposed these "reforms" upon us don't want that. As a matter of fact, they are just about the only losers in a more competitive electoral system. This, incidentally, is another, not-so-coincidental failure of the FECA and the BCRA - by limiting the role of the party in the campaign, they have made our elections generally less competitive. They thus benefit current officeholders. Bear that in mind next time you hear a sitting member of Congress smugly and condescendingly preach to you about "fixing" the system!

Another way to induce this kind of responsibility is an active and robust party base. If an activated and energized electorate is forcing a party to be relevant, an active and robust party base will prevent the party from taking issue positions that are identical to the competing party's position. That is, a robust base prevents both sides from tacking to the median voter, where there are no clear issue distinctions. Accordingly, I am strongly in favor of reforming the party organization from top-to-bottom. Unfortunately, party organizations today are either antiquated (like the party "clubs" that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s) or elites-only (like the national party units). The party can and should reconstitute itself to be a place for political activists to achieve not just what Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson call purposive benefits like policy reform, but the solidary benefits that come from being around like-minded folk. In other words, the party base today, for as vital as it is to the electoral prospects of the party, is not-at-all socially integrated into the party organization itself. Staunch Republicans feel a stronger sense of identity by listening to Rush Limbaugh than by going to a local party meeting. Staunch Democrats feel that sense more by participating at DailyKos than by working with the party. It was not always this way; for many years, the party was a social entity. However, the party organization failed to update its organizational structure, and it has since stopped being a social meeting place for the politically active. Restoring the social basis of the party will keep the party honest to its base - it would also probably enliven and invigorate the currently torpid campaign for local and state offices, which would make for better governance from the top of the government to the bottom.

These are just a few examples I have in mind - I mention them to underscore the following point. Inducing the party to set the agenda responsibly requires a whole set of political institutions, none of which constrict the party or party activists, but rather guide their natural tendencies toward a socially beneficial result. Limiting or capping contributions to the party would be part of an overall scheme. The problem with unlimited contributions is that the electoral-driven party might be induced to set the agenda irresponsibly. And, as a responsible setting of the agenda is a public good, we should prevent this from happening. But we should also work generally to revitalize the political party - by doing things like inducing serious competition from the top to the bottom of the ballot, and restoring the party's social function in American political life. These kinds of actions will, I think, move us closer to the ideal of responsible party government - and therefore to an electoral system that does a good job of keeping government officials accountable.

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 2

Yesterday, I began my response to Bradley Smith's recent article at the website of his Center for Competitive Politics. My trajectory in this endeavor has been to offer a thorough justification for why I would not allow unlimited "soft" money contributions to the political party. In response to Smith's well-reasoned criticisms of my initial thoughts on the matter, I decided it was only appropriate for me to outline exactly what I would want in a campaign finance regime.

This, in turn, led me yesterday to outline why the role of the political party in the electoral campaign is potentially beneficial. Today, I have two objectives. First, I am going to outline why I think the role of the party is inevitable, and how - because recent campaign finance laws have failed to recognize this fact - we are saddled with so many unintentional and inefficient side-effects. Second, I am going to bring both of these observations - the party is a potentially beneficial and inevitable agent in our electoral process - to bear in the development of a modest set of campaign finance reform proposals. This will pave the way to tomorrow's discussion of why unlimited party contributions are not part of my proposal scheme.

So, I shall begin with a look at the inevitability of the party's role in our elections. My argument here is that, unless you outlaw the party altogether, it is going to search endlessly for ways to maximize its involvement. Eventually, it is going to find ways to be highly involved. And so, campaign reform laws that presume that party involvement can be kept to a minimum are simply foolish.

Why is the party's role inevitable? It is because the party's fortune is wholly and intimately connected to the fortunes of its candidates. E.E. Schattschneider defined the political party as a team whose purpose is to win elections. Thus, the party and its candidates for office are inseparable, which means that the party will always work to find ways to be more and more involved in the campaign of its candidates. The party has an existential stake in American elections. If all party candidates lose, the party itself ceases to exist. Thus, we can and should expect the party not only to participate, but to participate as much as it possibly can. In this way, it is unlike any other political entity - if we allowed the party to do so, it would take complete control over every campaign for political office. In point of fact, this is what it essentially did in the 19th century!

This is why what I have called responsible party government is possible. The party wants to be involved - and it is going to try to involve itself! If we manage the way in which it is involved, rather than try to constrict it, we can achieve an electoral process in which the public is given clear, contrasting positions on the vital issues of the day. Responsible party government is practical because it recognizes and makes use of the natural inclinations of the party.

Unfortunately, because reformers have consistently failed to appreciate fully the inevitability of party activity, their efforts to regulate the party have always produced unintended, and undesirably inefficient, effects. Any scheme to maximize democratic accountability is doomed to fail unless it accounts for, and makes full use of, the political party. In other words, responsible party government is, in my opinion, the only way to achieve democratic accountability in a system that includes political parties. If you try to achieve accountability in a party system without using the party to achieve this result, the party is going to thwart your efforts.

Why? It is because, so long as the party exists, it is going to stick its nose into every election it can. This means that if a law tries to limit its role, the party is going to start searching for "loopholes" in it. Don't think for a moment that it won't find them, either! All laws have loopholes because language is necessarily vague and because lawmakers cannot envision every possible scenario, let alone indicate in the law what should happen in all of them. Barring the use of loopholes, the party can still rely upon that pesky First Amendment to involve itself - freedom of association is an unqualified right that is highly useful for the party. The party can, and has, appealed to the courts, which have accordingly gutted reforms by striking from them elements essential to their central purposes. The result has been, and will always be, that the party thwarts schemes for non-partisan democratic accountability, which proceed to devolve into ridiculously irrational compilations of rules that do nothing except induce inefficiencies that nobody wants.

Thus, you must either eliminate the party (which would require an amendment to the Constitution to rescind the right of free association), or recognize and use the role that it has. The current campaign finance regime does neither - hence the absurdity of the spectacle that it creates every even-numbered year (Including, but not limited to, the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court siding with the government against a small, grass-roots organization like Wisconsin Right to Life! What, pray tell, would Earl Warren think of that?). Our current regime is so ridiculous because its innovators wrongly assumed that the role of the party could be kept to a minimum. It cannot be. Accordingly, the intentions of the whole regime have been completely undermined by the fact that the party has, inevitably, found and made use of loopholes in the law. The result is a system that is entirely inefficient in terms of protecting either principle that we would like an electoral scheme to embody, namely free speech and democratic accountability.

"Independent expenditures" are a perfect illustration of the way in which the current regime - because it fails to recognize, let alone make use of, the reality of the party - takes us further from an ideally accountable system. I can't stand "independent expenditures" - they are an offense to both good sense and democracy. First, the concept of "independence" between a political party and its candidate for the office it wishes to win is nonsensical. The fact that we conceive of the party and its candidates as being independent of each other is a sign that we still - after 200 years - have not grasped exactly what the party is! Second, "independent expenditures" are horribly inefficient if our goal is to maximize democratic accountability. They are an example of maximized speech rights, but minimized accountability. The party is going to spend as much as it can because - like its candidates - it has a compelling, existential interest in electoral victory. The First Amendment guarantees its right to spend this money. Thus, the party can spend money, and we know that it will spend money. Would society not be better off - both from a speech perspective and from an accountability perspective - if we allowed the candidates and the party to coordinate their activities? After all, the party is going to do everything it can to be involved, and party involvement is a good thing because it can yield a contest that maximizes coherence in campaign messages, and therefore democratic accountability. Why should we allow the party to participate as much as it wants, but refuse it the ability to coordinate its efforts with the candidate?

There are all kinds of ridiculous inefficiencies in our system that stem from the fact that reformers have failed to regard the party properly. My favorite is an example discovered by California State University professor Diana Dwyre. Dwyre found that, under the FECA regime, national party organizations experimented with what she called "spinning soft money straw into hard money gold." That is, they began to contribute large sums of soft money to state party units in exchange for hard money contributions to and expenditures for federal candidates. Did state party units keep up their end of the bargain? Oh sure, but not on a 1:1 basis! The state party units would contribute a sum of hard money to candidates, but not the same amount that the national party gave in soft money. They pocketed a not insignificant fee. Thus, our FECA regime turned our state party units into usurers of their own national party!

This is the result of the FECA and the BCRA. The party is left to "exploit loopholes" to do what it is naturally compelled to do. The loopholes are inefficient, and thus the party is not in a position to do what it could and would do in a responsible party government model. In so doing, it undermines the intention of the misconceived laws that were supposed to fix the system. We are left with an electoral system that does not protect political speech as much as it should, and does not maximize the public's ability to exercise democratic control.

Who is the big winner in today's campaign finance scheme? Incumbents! In a system where the party's role is stultified, and the party responds by thwarting the intentions of the system - responsible party government does not exist, and thus clear positioning on relevant issues does not happen. The result is that the public never has an opportunity to evaluate coherently the actions of governmental agents. And so, incumbents can make use of the "personal vote" in their districts - and thus not fret too much over whether they actually do anything in government. They would be the losers in a responsible party government model because that model embodies the purpose of elections: to evaluate and pass judgment upon the actions of governmental agents.

In frankness, I think that there is no single area of American political life in which there has been such a backslide than in the accountability that the ballot box yields. In far too many respects, the voting public enjoyed a more democratic system in 1832 than it does in 2007. The unexpected (but not unpredictable!) results of "progressive reforms" to our system have conspired again and again to reduce greatly the quality of our democratic process. In many ways, we had it better immediately after the "Jacksonian Revolution" than we do today. It is ironic and sad that, as America has brought more and more of its people into the voting process, it has made that process less and less effective at holding government to account. What I find so frustrating is that the ignorance of "good government" reformers for how our system actually works has been matched only by their smugness for those who dare to disagree. It is as if they think that water can be made to flow uphill, and anybody who disagrees is either compromised by the pernicious influence of corporate "Big Water" or is just plain foolish.

So, what law would I support? Generally speaking, I would support any law that recognizes the inevitability and utility of party involvement, and that tries to use this involvement to maximize electoral accountability without minimizing free speech. I would heartily support the following against either the BCRA or the FECA:

(1) For all entities except the political party and its candidates, there are no limitations on any resources raised or spent on electioneering. All private citizens, or groups of private citizens, are free to spend as they wish in whatever quantity they wish if their purpose is to persuade the public. They may spend freely to endorse the election or defeat of a candidate, or to encourage or discourage the public from holding any issue position.
(2) The political party and its candidates are not limited in how much they can spend, either. However, they are not allowed to raise unlimited sums from any single source. Nevertheless, the contribution limits imposed by the BCRA are raised significantly.
(3) The direct contribution and coordinated expenditure limits of the BCRA are abolished. There are no barriers to the extent to which the party may coordinate its activities with its candidates.
(4) The BCRA "stand by your ad" provisions are retained.
This is a system that, I think, recognizes the importance of the two goals I referenced at the beginning of the essay. Speech rights are protected here, I think. What is more, we achieve some sort of coherence in political messages to the voters, which is a prerequisite for maximizing democratic accountability. We recognize not only that the more voices that are heard (and clearly heard, hence point (4)), the more accountability our process can engender.

We also recognize that the party plays a unique role in this process, and that its natural tendency should be neither denied nor constrained, but guided to maximize accountability. These proposals would, I think, involve the party more intimately in its candidates' campaigns - thus helping the party impose a more coherent, more unified campaign message every election season. No longer would we see so many candidates so easily campaign on whatever will get them elected - rather, the party may now exercise a centripetal force on the 470 or so campaigns for the Congress. The nation would thus move closer to the ideal of responsible party government, in which it reviews and selects its preferred party platform.

This is why I would limit the sources of party revenue, i.e. the party would still not be allowed to acquire unlimited dollars from any one source. I think that it hampers the possibility of responsible party government. I will discuss this tomorrow.

Let me conclude this segment of the discussion with the following considerations. In my opinion, the recent history of campaign finance reform has been part and parcel of our nation's mixed, and misplaced, feelings about the political party - which date back to the Founders. The actions of the party today might be part of the problem, but the party itself is nevertheless the solution. The trick is not to limit the scope of party activity, but to encourage and guide it to a positive result.

Americans, for whatever reason, have always had trouble understanding this. Deep down, I think most of us are sympathetic to Hamilton's position that there should be no party because we should all see eye-to-eye on the "true" "national" interest. After more than two centuries of sectionalism and factionalism, I think we should dispense with this concept - we should recognize that there are going to be fundamental differences that separate us, that these differences can only be resolved by elections, that we need to frame electoral contests as clearly and as relevantly as we can, and that we need the party for this task. The role of the government should be to induce the party to frame our elections in socially relevant and responsible ways - e.g. we need to avoid the "small," patronage-minded politics of the political machines in the Gilded Age - while nevertheless promoting the role of the party.

Unfortunately, the FECA and the BCRA implicitly endorse this wrong-headed, albeit it very old, attitude about the party being an impediment to democratic accountability. Rather than treat the party as a potential ally of good governance, the FECA and the BCRA treat it as an enemy. And when the party does what it naturally does - try to involve itself in the campaign by "exploiting loopholes" (note the language used by reformers - the party does not "make use of the silence of the law," it "exploits loopholes!") - campaign finance reformers offer that as proof of their thesis that the party is part of the problem. This circular way of thinking leads to a stultification of all reform efforts, and an inefficient electoral process. The way out of the cycle is for us to "get over" our abhorrence of the party system, admit that it is inevitable, recognize that it can be of great benefit, and design a campaign finance system that helps the party achieve this benefit.

-Jay Cost

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party: A Response to Bradley Smith, Part 1

This week, Bradley Smith of the Center for Competitive Politics offered an interesting and thoughtful response to a recent essay I wrote on the role of soft money in politics. Regular readers will recall that Mr. Smith - who is the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission - wrote an article for City Journal to which my essay was a response. The source of our disagreement is the role that soft money should play in national politics - I have a more restrictive vision for its role than Mr. Smith. His most recent essay is a response to my explication of my position.

I'd like to continue the discussion with the following considerations.

I am going to try to avoid the kind of format - where I quote him at length and then respond - that I imagine will bore readers who have neither the time nor the interest to follow in that kind of detail. I do have some back-and-forth comments to make. I have attached these as an appendix to this essay. My hope is that, even if you have not read (nor plan to read) my original essay or Mr. Smith's response to it, you will still derive some value from the following amplification of my position.

A much needed one at that. In the wake of Mr. Smith's article, I carefully reviewed my original essay - and I must say that it does not do a very good job of reflecting my views. And so, I think that Mr. Smith's criticisms are - in many instances - quite valid. I should have been more precise. Mr. Smith calls upon me to state a "detailed position." This is an entirely reasonable request - and that I did not provide a position was my principal failing in my original article - and so I am happy to oblige here. The issue that divides us is the role that "soft money" should play in politics - while the role I have in mind is more expansive than the role he seems to think I have in mind (for that, see the appendix!), my preference is that political parties not have access to what came to be known as "soft money." To justify this fully will require, I think, a careful statement of my opinions on campaign finance - which I have been able to develop with some thoroughness over the years thanks to my study of the parties.

I am going to spread my response over three days. Today and tomorrow, I shall offer a philosophical sketch of what I would like to see from a campaign finance regime. Friday I shall explain why I object to the role of soft money in the political party.

A final note to readers: I apologize for my absence from blogging on Tuesday. A power outage thwarted my attempts to work on this piece on Monday. Work on this piece took up most of my Tuesday - hence, no time for blogging. I thought it best to make this my priority. After all, when the former chair of the FEC asks you to clarify your opinion, you best put that at the top of your agenda!


Fundamentally, I think that we must remember that campaign finance is not, strictly speaking, an issue solely regarding speech rights, although this is important. It is also about: how do we design an electoral system that maximizes democratic accountability, i.e. enables the public to use the franchise to influence the actions of the government as much as possible? Now, you are not going to hear old, tired arguments from me that we have to make choices between the two. As far as I am concerned, speech is a necessary condition of accountability. The more we limit speech, the more we prevent voices from being heard, the less accountability our democratic process will create.

However, we must be careful here. We must recognize that speech rights - even though they are a necessary condition of democratic accountability - are not a sufficient condition. In other words, if we fail to maximize speech rights, we will not have an accountable electoral system. On the other hand, we might maximize speech rights and still not have an accountable system.

I think that the two laws that have governed the last thirty odd years of federal elections - the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) - are miserable failures in protecting either principle, and that modifying the BCRA to protect speech is insufficient for protecting accountability.

In other words, my position is that the FECA (as amended in 1974) is a bad law that has wrought a bad result. The major problem with adjustments to it - be they FECA amendments, Court rulings, or the BCRA - is that they have only been tinkering at the margins with this misguided and wholly unsuccessful law that not only stultifies our attempts to achieve accountability, but also misunderstands a basic fact of American political life. If I had my way, the FECA would be scrapped altogether - and we would start from scratch with a sober understanding of how politics in our country actually works.

What do the FECA and its successors misunderstand? The inevitable, and potentially beneficial, role of the political party in our electoral process. Let us examine the potential benefits before we look at the inevitability.

E.E. Schattschneider, in his seminal Party Government, argues that the role of the public in our process is necessary, but limited. The public has a vocabulary of only two words - "yes" and "no" - and it can only speak when spoken to. We maximize the effectiveness of the public's voice - and therefore maximize the extent to which public officials are held accountable by it - when we ask the public tightly-defined and socially-relevant questions. That is, the public exercises maximum control over governmental officials when, (a) there are clear, relevant issues at stake in an election, and (b) one candidate clearly represents one set of issues and another candidate clearly represents another set. In such an election, the public choice indicates a clear preference among policy alternatives - and thus a governmental mandate.

What Schattschneider is implying is that the public does not have the capacity to frame the election or to set the agenda. It cannot establish a contest over clearly-espoused and relevant issue positions. Who has that capacity? Historically, that role has fallen upon the political party - without which, Schattschneider rightly argues, American democracy would be unthinkable. Indeed, the party is so important to our system that our Founders began their civic careers as anti-party men, but eventually came to found the first parties!

It is strange to think of elections being framed - however, they are. Ask yourself why American elections hinge on certain issues and not others. The answer is that a set of individuals has chosen the particular frame. Theoretically speaking, the divisions between candidates in a campaign could be over almost any issue. The issues over which a campaign is actually waged have been determined by some entity or entities other than the electorate. Traditionally, this entity has been the party. The party has chosen the scope of political conflict.

Even though party control over the debate has sometimes limited democratic accountability, the party remains our best chance to maximize this accountability. Why? It is because, when the party frames an election coherently and relevantly, we can achieve something akin to responsible party government, which is a set of maxims that describe a normative ideal:

1. The political party takes clear issue positions for the purpose of the electoral campaign. Candidates who hold a certain party label are known to hold these issue positions by virtue of their association with that party.
2. The party - upon attaining control of the government - endeavors to enact its policy program.
3. In the subsequent election, the party is evaluated by (a) the extent to which it was successful in its enactment, and (b) the extent to which the enactment was beneficial.
The value of this is that it can offer governmental officials clear mandates from the public. If we define very plainly the set of positions the Democrats hold and the set of positions the Republicans hold, and both parties campaign explicitly on those issues - the winning party can head into office with a mandate to act. In other words, the more clearly we frame the issues, the more intelligible the public response will be, and the more influential that response becomes. On the other hand, when issues are not clearly defined - when candidates "run to the center," they run on issues that will not be of importance in the next government, or they run on personal qualities that have little bearing on the course of government - the vote of the public has very little influence over what happens in the next governing session. After all, they are being asked to weigh in on irrelevant or obscure matters - how can such judgments affect the course of future policy?

It should be clear that the political party is the only agent in our country with the capacity to accomplish any semblance of this coherence. What is required for the responsible party government model is for candidates of the same party to take uniform issue positions. Because elections in our system are geographically diverse, and the election of one candidate does not necessarily imply the election of another, we should not expect candidates to evidence this kind of coordination spontaneously. Thus, we are in need of some kind of centralized force that influences them to coordinate. We need an agent to coordinate and manage, at least to an extent, elections all across the country. Hence, the centrality of the political party to democratic accountability: the party is the only agent with the resources for and the interests in such a task.

Unfortunately, the FECA - and, because it retained the FECA's basic philosophical orientation, the BCRA as well - moved us further from this ideal. Both laws are anti-party. Both treat the party as part of the problem - whereas in the responsible party government model, they are the solution. The FECA and the BCRA tightly, even punitively, constrict the party's ability to coordinate campaign messages among its candidates in different electoral contests. Specifically, the contribution and coordinated expenditure limits placed upon the party prevent it from undertaking the task asked of it in the responsible party government model.

What do we have instead? We have a system in which local candidates are in control of local elections. The party plays only a modest role in inducing a national campaign from the 470 or so congressional campaigns waged every two years. Beyond this small nationalizing influence, the congressional election is quite local. This may sound all well and good - but consider the result. Party candidates run campaigns not based upon a unified, coherent political message that binds one party candidate to another, and that - if accepted by the public - would be justification for governmental action. Instead, they run campaigns designed simply to maximize the chances of individual victory. Thus, without clear and relevant contrasts between the parties - the electorate is not able to render a coherent judgment about either the recent actions of government, or about what should happen next. Party candidates win (or lose) not because of a discrete set of issues of national scope and salience, but rather based upon whether they can frame the local debate in a way that benefits them the most. Accordingly, they develop moderate issue positions, exploit issues that are of little salience to the nation, exploit the "personal vote" to achieve election, or make excessive use of the pork barrel, etc. The result is a government that has no mandate from the public - and, conversely, a public that exercises only little control over the government.

Many factors in what I like to call the political economy of the electoral campaign have induced this outcome. However, a major factor has been the FECA followed by the BCRA - both of them have, as I said, punitively limited the extent to which the party can influence party candidates. The campaign finance regimes of the last thirty years have prevented the party from producing from its diverse candidates a unified, coherent, and clear political message that the public may evaluate and select if it so chooses. In so doing, this regime has diminished the influence of the public in whatever actions the government decides to adopt or not adopt. A weakened party means weakened democratic accountability.

As I said, an engaged party is not only potentially beneficial - it is inevitable. What do I mean by this? I mean that the party is naturally inclined to be involved in the campaign for office. An understanding of the natural inclination of the party helps us to understand the failures of our current campaign finance regime, and points us toward a regime that more closely resembles the ideal of responsible party government. I shall thus continue the discussion tomorrow with this point.

The appendix follows.

Continue reading "Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party: A Response to Bradley Smith, Part 1" »

Campaign Finance Reform and Political Power

Former Federal Election Commission Chair Bradley A. Smith had an interesting article in City Journal, which makes a libertarian-esque case against campaign finance reform. In it, he makes the following argument:

Reformers...claim that reform gets rid of the political corruption that supposedly follows from large campaign contributions. Yet study after study shows that contributions play little or no role in how politicians vote. One of the most comprehensive, conducted by a group of MIT scholars in 2004, concluded that "indicators of party, ideology and district preferences account for most of the systematic variation in legislators' roll call voting behavior." The studies comport with common sense. Most politicians enter the public arena because they hold strong beliefs on public policy. Truly corrupt pols--the Duke Cunninghams of the world--want illegal bribes, not campaign donations.

As far as I know, all of the facts in this quotation are absolutely true. I have never seen any systematic evidence to indicate that contributions influence "roll call votes." However, is this the only way influence can be acquired?

Absolutely not!

In fact, if we look away from the congressional floor, and look instead to the committee level - we see something quite different. What we see are moneyed interests buying involvement, not votes. Moneyed interests spend resources to induce legislators to think positively about the issues they want them thinking positively about. In other words, moneyed interests exercise what I have, on this site, called the second mode of power. They help set the agenda. This is the argument of Richard Hall and Frank Wayman in their seminal article in The American Political Science Review called, "Buying Time: Moneyed Interests and the Mobilization of Bias in Congressional Committees." After testing their hypothesis, they conclude:

[W]e found solid support for our principal hypothesis: moneyed interests are able to mobilize legislators already predisposed to support the group's position. Conversely, money that a group contributions to its likely opponent has either a negligible or negative effect on their participation. While previous research on these same issues provided little evidence that PAC money purchased members' votes, it apparently did buy marginal time, energy, and legislative resources that committee participation requires. Moreoever, we found evidence that (organized) producer interests figured more prominently than (unorganized) consumer interests in the participation decisions of House committee members - both for a case in which the issue at stake evoked high district salience and one where it did not.

We should expect something akin to this. After all, if special interest money does not acquire special interests anything at all - why would they contribute so much? In other words, a rational view of interests groups induces us to expect that they get something from their contributions.

This is why the issue of campaign finance reform is not purely a First Amendment issue. Smith calls campaign finance reform a "war on political freedom." In some instances, I would agree with that. But, one such area in which you will find me in staunch disagreement is the issue of soft money. If AT&T and Coca-Cola could write $50 million checks and pay for each party's political conventions - as they could before the BCRA (the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold) - it seems to me that the overall effect is one that thwarts "political freedom." If these entities are "buying time," to what extent is the government not conducting the people's business, and thus to what extent do the people actually control the actions of the government?

Money dedicated to the purpose of electioneering is money that, if restricted, limits political freedom. On this, I do not think Smith and I would disagree. However, these large soft money checks were not dedicated to electioneering. These large corporations did not give this money so that the public could hear their views, or their favored politicians' views, in the public forum. Rather, they gave large quantities of money to both parties so as to avoid their issues being considered in the public forum. This undermines the very nature of our democratic process.

And so we see the bottom line. Smith offers several anecdotal examples of the outrages of campaign finance reform. And, believe you me, I am sympathetic to all of them. Quite frankly, I think the basic premises of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (the FECA, which the BCRA replaced in 2004) are philosophically misguided and socially detrimental. It is a bad law, and - by accepting the FECA's basic view of how campaign finance should be regulated - BCRA made things worse. [Personally, I think campaign finance reform should - though it never has - promote what scholars have called responsible party government.] Nevertheless, it is just true that there are some campaign financing activities that can and do undermine our political process. In those instances, the government can and should regulate it.

I count soft money contributions to the political parties as one such instance where the government should be involved.

-Jay Cost

McCain-Feingold Takes Another Hit. Or Does It?

Yesterday, in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, the Supreme Court struck a blow to the campaign finance regime that has been in place since 2004. Or did it?

The issue in question is whether Wisconsin Right to Life, a non-profit corporation, could run what it claimed to be issue ads within thirty days of the primary with money that came from its general treasury fund. The ads in question called upon viewers to encourage Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold to vote against the filibuster of judicial nominations. They did not advocate that Senator Feingold, who was up for reelection in the fall, be defeated. At the time, the FEC ruled that these advertisements were impermissible under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), a.k.a. McCain-Feingold.

The BCRA prohibits money from corporation and union general treasuries from financing "electioneering communications" (corporations and unions must instead work through PACs). An "electioneering communication" is, according to the BCRA,

Any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication which--
(I) refers to a clearly identified candidate or Federal office;
(II) is made within--
(aa) 60 days before a general, special, or runoff election for the office sought by the candidate; or
(bb) 30 days before a primary or preference election, or a convention or caucus of a political party that has authority to nominate a candidate, for the office sought by the candidate; and
(III) in the case of a communication which refers to a candidate for an office other than President or Vice President, is targeted to the relevant electorate.

This is known as the "blackout" provision because advertisements that are funded via corporation or union money (or money from individuals who have exceeded the BCRA-imposed limits on individual contributions, e.g. George Soros) cannot be aired within thirty days of a primary election or sixty days of a general election. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) determined that the Wisconsin Right to Life ads were indeed electioneering communications, and could not be run.

In Wisconsin Right to Life, the Supreme Court ruled against the FEC. It upheld the blackout provision, but ruled that the ads were nevertheless permissible.

The blackout provision was one of several intended to close a loophole that parties and interest groups began to exploit in 1996. The Democratic National Committee, at the behest of Clinton-Gore '96, started spending large amounts of soft money on "issue ads" that did not expressly endorse one candidate over another, but effectively did. Soon after, the Republicans followed suit.

How could this occur? In 1979 Congress amended the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) to allow parties to spend "soft" money (i.e. money not raised under the FECA's "hard" limits on who could give and how much they could give) for party building activities. Party building included: (a) the distribution of grassroots, pro-party material that did not expressly promote the election of a federal candidate, (b) slate cards, (c) voter registration, (d) administration and overhead. Individuals could contribute unlimited amounts of soft money to party committees, and corporations and unions were not barred from contributing. In 1996 the parties started dedicating massive amounts of soft money to issue ads that were technically defined as party building, and thus not subject to the hard limits of the FECA, but were effectively expressing advocacy for a candidate's election.

The BCRA forbid parties from raising or spending soft money - and thus did away with soft money issue ads. To prevent non-party organizations from doing what the parties had done, the BCRA also implemented the blackout provision.

This is not the first time the Court has reviewed the blackout provision. In 2003's McConnell v. FEC the Court upheld it in principle, ruling that the FEC could prevent outside groups from funding "electioneering communications" with money collected outside the BCRA limitations. Nevertheless, the Court did indicate that "pure" issue ads would be permissible during the blackout dates. It therefore opened the door to a later challenge. Hence, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. The FEC decided that Wisconsin Right to Life's ads were indeed electioneering, and Wisconsin Right to Life argued that they were pure issue ads.

In siding with Wisconsin Right to Life, the Court did not offer a majority opinion as to a justification for the rule. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, argued for a standard to differentiate between "electioneering communications" and "pure issue ads." Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

Because [Wisconsin Right to Life's] ads may reasonably be interpreted as something other than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate, they are not the functional equivalent of express advocacy, and therefore fall outside McConnell's scope. To safeguard freedom of speech on public issues, the proper standard for an as-applied challenge to [the BCRA] must be objective, focusing on the communication's substance rather than on amorphous considerations of intent and effect...[A] court should find that an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate. [Wisconsin Right to Life's] three ads are plainly not the functional equivalent of express advocacy under this test.

What the Chief Justice argued for here is seemingly narrow. He does not wish to overturn the blackout provision cited above. Rather, he rejects the FEC's interpretation of it. He holds that so long as one could reasonably interpret an ad as a genuine issue ad, it does not fall prey to the BCRA's definition of electioneering communication. He thus holds the BCRA to be constitutional, but the FEC's interpretation of it to be unconstitutionally broad.

Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined in the ruling with the Chief Justice and Justice Alito. However, they did not join in this opinion. They want the blackout provision overturned altogether.

Thus, the ads are permissible, and the blackout provision is constitutional.

Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsberg, and Breyer view this as an overturning of the Court's ruling in McConnell, and an effective end to the blackout provision. Justice Souter wrote:

After today, the ban on contributions by corporations and unions and the limitation on their corrosive spending when they enter the political arena are open to easy circumvention, and the possibilities for regulating corporate and union campaign money are unclear. The ban on contributions will mean nothing much, now that companies and unions can save candidates the expense of advertising directly, simply by running "issue ads" without express advocacy, or by funneling the money through an independent corporation like [Wisconsin Right to Life].

Without treading too far into the thorny legal or moral debate, I will say that my intuition is that Justice Souter is being a little hyperbolic. The reason is that the political parties will not be able to participate in this kind of activity. The BCRA ban on soft money has been retained. This will do much to prevent what he fears will happen.

I agree with Souter that the Court has effectively narrowed the BCRA's intended definition of "electioneering communication." I also think that this decision - because it lacks a justification that a majority supports - confuses more than it clarifies. However, to argue that this will once again open the floodgates holding back corporation and union money is to fail to appreciate what induced these organizations to give so much in the past. Their interest in channeling soft money funds to the parties was for access as least as much as it was for electioneering. A big check to the party could get you the ear of a senator if and when you needed it. Will an independently-financed quasi-electioneering ad do the same? I do not think so. I think the latter only influences voters directly, and elected officials indirectly (and I am not sure how much indirect influence it would have over officials - I do not think those "527 organizations" have acquired much influence, despite all of their efforts). Soft money given to parties could influence officials directly.

The key difference is that today, the parties are forbidden from this kind of activity. By locking the parties out of this process - and they still will be locked out - you retain a major impediment to the kind of union- and corporation-driven money that thwarted the old FECA regime. Barring the parties from soft money means impeding corporations and unions from buying access to them. Even if this opens the way for them to participate in electioneering - that is a far cry from what most of us found to be offensive in the wake of the 1996 election. Most of us objected to the direct influence that could be wielded over government officials by massive contributions to their parties.

Where I think this could have an effect is on the role of 527 groups - which in the past have been subjected to the blackout provision. What this might do is allow these groups to engage in their so-called "issue advocacy" further into the campaign season. This is why I agree with the minority that the BCRA has been weakened here, but I do not think it has been weakened by very much. The parties are still barred from receiving soft money, which is what induced this regime in the first place.

But, then again, much depends upon how the FEC deals with this decision. There is no majority-endorsed guideline on how to interpret the blackout rule. All the Court has said here is that the blackout rule does not forbid all ads. If the FEC interprets this ruling narrowly, only a few ads might be aired in the blackout period. In that case, expect to see the Court revisit this issue in the wake of the 2008 cycle.

-Jay Cost

Immigration Reform and the Structure of Congress

It appears that the immigration reform bill is not quite dead. In the last few days - as we all know - there was a deal brokered between Senate Democrats and Republicans to regulate the number of amendments to be offered, and to make way for a final cloture vote. Many pundits expect that the Senate shall pass the bill. Then, it shall head to the House - where it is expected to have a difficult time.

Why is it that House members are less inclined toward the bill? The answer, at least in part, can be found in a review of the intentions of the designers of the upper and lower chambers of Congress.

Initially, the Senate was composed of members selected by the legislatures of the respective states to terms of six years. The Framers thought these stipulations would create a body well disposed to serve the nation in certain regards. After all, they empowered the Senate - and only the Senate - to confirm appointments, ratify treaties, and act on articles of impeachment.

In Federalist 63, Madison writes:

The objects of government may be divided into two general classes: the one depending on measures which have singly an immediate and sensible operation; the other depending on a succession of well-chosen and well-connected measures, which have a gradual and perhaps unobserved operation. The importance of the latter description to the collective and permanent welfare of every country needs no operation. And yet it is evident that an assembly elected for so short a term as to be unable to provide more than one or two links in a chain of measures, on which the general welfare may essentially depend, ought not to be answerable for the final result any more than a steward or tenant, engaged for one year, could be justly made to answer for places or improvements which could not be accomplished in less than half a dozen years.
Madison believed that the Senate would be better qualified to deal with the latter "object of government," i.e. affairs that involve long trains of causes and effects. This is one reason why the minimum age for entry into the Senate is thirty rather than twenty-five (as it is in the House), why terms in the Senate last six years rather than two, why state legislatures rather than voters selected senators. The Senate was designed as an institution where the passions of the public held little sway, where mature and estimable citizens could take time to learn the intricacies of policy without worrying about reelection - and therefore where matters that might be beyond the public's immediate apprehension, and therefore its perceived interests, could be considered calmly and coolly.

What of the House? It was intentionally designed to be the people's legislature, to represent the articulated interests of the public. Writes Madison in Federalist 58:

[T]he House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust have established their title to a renewal of it.
All of this relates to the relatively short terms that House members serve. Unlike senators - they are too deeply connected to their constituents to presume to do that which their publics would abhor.

It is not hard, then, to appreciate why immigration reform is favored in the Senate, but not the House. The Senate was designed to facilitate considerations of public affairs that involve a longer time frame. Senators were set free from the vagaries of public opinion to consider solutions to problems of the long run - even if those solutions offend the public. And so, it is not surprising to see Senators supporting this bill, despite the heated opposition of their constituents. Jon Kyl is a case in point. Arizona Republicans are angry at him now, but can they sustain such anger until 2012, the next time that Mr. Kyl is up for reelection? I think not. This means that Mr. Kyl has the luxury of pondering solutions to the great problems, solutions that his constituents might despise. It is here that we can appreciate that the Seventeenth Amendment's provision for the direct election of Senators did not alter the fundamental relationship between the Senate and the people. It moved the Senate closer to the people, but there is still a great distance between the two.

As for the House, one might be inclined to respond that it is the case that - when people are asked about the specific measures in the reform bill - they generally support them. So, one might go on, why should we not expect the House to support the bill as well? There are three related reasons not to expect this - all of which are reducible to the fact that these polls do not figure into House members' calculations as one might think.

First, this bill faces intense opposition from a segment of the public. Polls do not efficiently measure intensity of feeling, which can be of critical importance for House members. Feelings of support for the reform bill seem to me to be lukewarm, while feelings of opposition seem to me to be strong. This matters a great deal. If a majority of the public supports a measure, but does not offer intense support, while a minority opposes a measure intensely - it can be electorally dangerous for the member to vote against the minority. Intensity of feeling does not matter once we start counting votes - but there is a lot of politics that goes into the time before votes are counted, and intensity of feeling can matter a great deal in this lead up. Supporting a bill that a majority of your constituents support only mildly will not incline them to vote for. If a vocal minority of your constituents oppose the bill, you can expect this opposition to be mobilized against you in the next election - where, ironically, they might be able to induce the bill's lukewarm supporters to vote you out!

Second, like most bills - this one delineates a set of winners and losers. Senators have the freedom to support the bill because they think, in the long run, the nation as a whole will win. But House members have to face their constituents in less than 24 months - and so they are forced to think of the immediate consequences. Who are the immediate losers as a result of this bill? Obviously, the right loses. So also does the union left. Hispanic voters probably cannot be considered unequivocal winners. This bill might help those who are of the same ethnicity, but it comes at a cost to these voters - for the bill as it stands severely reduces the practice of "chain" migration, which is a way for them to bring kin to the country. The only unequivocal winners by this bill are a segment of the business community that will benefit from newly legalized labor and currently illegal immigrants who will not be able to vote for a decade or thereabouts. There are many immediate losers and a small number of immediate (voting) winners. This makes it a difficult bill for House members to support.

Third, to argue from nationwide polls that House members should support the bill is to commit the ecological fallacy. Just because the nation as a whole divides in a certain way about the bill does not mean that any given House district does as well. Indeed - there are good reasons to suspect that it will not. The practice of gerrymandering has had the effect of separating different partisans into different districts.

Generally, House members are mindful of the nature of public opinion in a way different than what the polls imply. We should be, too. As a whole, we have seen the public voice opposition to this bill while voicing support for most of its facets. We have seen the public argue that the existing law should be enforced while arguing that illegal immigrants should be given an opportunity to reconcile themselves with the nation. There is a large number in the public whose opinions are incoherent - a sure sign of only mild interest in the subject. House members need not worry about them when it comes time for reelection. They need to worry about which of their particular constituents win and which of their particular constituents lose. Even if only a minority of constituents are losers, this minority could constitute a highly motivated, socially cohesive basis of opposition.

We should be able to appreciate in all of this two fundamental features of Madison's thinking. He anticipated that a healthy republic would be one that takes a middle course between extremes. Sound republican government could not be secured by recourse only to a hotly democratic branch like the House because it might not have the capacity to apprehend the long-term interests of the nation. But it could not be entrusted to a branch like the Senate because it is so far removed from the people that it could become plutocratic. There is more than a hint of the Aristotelian golden mean in Madison's design of balanced powers. Second, and as we have discussed before, there is built into this system a strong status quo bias. The only point at which the system will allow the status quo to be altered is when both the House and the Senate agree. In other words - changes are enacted if and only if those looking out for the voters' immediate interests accept the change, and those looking out for their long-term interests accept the change.

-Jay Cost

Bush, Congress, and Political Power

Government, as we all know, is about power, which is a multi-faceted and sometimes subtle concept. I have found that many people have a working defintion of power that is not entirely sufficient to yield a full understanding of American politics. Bringing a broader definition of power to bear on recent events in Washington can help us tease out some insights about our current political environment that, I think, have gone largely unnoticed.

A good way to think about power is to imagine two politicians, Bob and Barbara, at a negotiating table. If Bob tells Barbara that she had better agree to the proposal, or else he will refuse to endorse her in the next election - Bob is exercising power over Barbara. Bob has something she wants, and for Barbara to get that, she must give him something he wants.

This is the way most people think about power. But there are other modes in which one can exercise power. For instance, what if Bob decides, before the meeting begins, that he is simply not going to bring up certain disagreements he has with Barbara, and that he is going to bring up other disagreements instead. In this case Bob would have the power to set the agenda. This is a power that is different than the power outlined in the last paragraph, where Bob flat out threatened Barbara. This is a more subtle exercise of power. If flat out threats might be understood as the "first mode" of power, the power to set the agenda might be understood as the "second mode."

Many people do not think of power being exercised in this way, though I am sure the same people - when the subject of setting the agenda is brought up - would recognize that agenda-setting is indeed a powerful activity. It is just it is not on their radars.

It's on my radar, though. As a matter of fact, the second mode of power tends to creep into my thoughts whenever I think about Bush and Congress. For instance, I looked at this immigration debate, and I asked: why was this issue brought up now? I find the answer that many might give - "Well - it is an important, pressing concern." - to be insufficient. After all, there are literally dozens of "important, pressing" concerns, all of which are just as worthy of the public's attention as others. Why this issue?

The answer is...politics! Who chooses to raise some issues and not others? Politicians! Of course, in some instances - for example, 9/11 - issues are raised for politicians, and not by them. But, in most cases, politicians choose to bring certain issues up and not to bring certain other issues up. Politicians set the agenda. Democrats and Republicans alike will know what I am talking about. In 1993, Republicans objected mightily to the "manufactured" crisis in health care that the Clintons had supposedly created. Just last fall, Democrats objected mightily to the "crass politicization" of the issue of Guantanamo that the Republicans undertook after Labor Day. Both sides were coming from the same direction at different points in time - both recognized that the other had acted to set the agenda in a way that was beneficial to the other's interests, and that they could do nothing about it but complain.

Why is the power to set the agenda so important? The parties disagree on most every issue that we discuss in politics. On some issues, the Republicans have the voters with them. On other issues, the Democrats do. The power to set the agenda gives a party the power to allow discussion only on issues that favor their side. Republicans like to talk about taxes and terrorism. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Republican ideas on these issues. Democrats, meanwhile, like to talk about education and health care. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Democratic ideas on these issues.

This is one reason why political campaigns are not so much discussions between two candidates who disagree, but rather talking-past-one-another sessions. Republicans know better than to engage Democrats on health care because the more health care is discussed, the more the party loses the support of the electorate. So, what do Republicans do? They talk about taxes. Democrats know better than to engage Republicans on taxes for the same reason. So what do they do? They talk about health care.

Ideally speaking, if you have the power to set the agenda, what kind of issue should you raise? The answer is pretty clear. The best kind of issue is one where your allies are united and your opponents are divided, and the public likes your idea and hates your opponents' idea. That makes for the best politics. You can make yourself look like the action-oriented, unified party of the people, and you can make your opponents look like the feckless, divided defenders of the special interests. It is the gift that keeps on giving: you get the policy initiative you want, and you help yourself in advance of the next election.

As evidence of the truth of what I write here, I would point to two news items that crossed through my field of vision in the last few weeks. The first is from Paul Kane and his Capitol Blog on the Washington Post's website on June 1. Kane writes:

House Democrats are voting with such unity that, if continued throughout the 110th Congress, their cohesion would be unparalleled in recent congressional history.

Through the first five months of the year, the average House Democrat has voted with a majority of his/her caucus colleagues on 94 percent of the 425 roll calls. Enjoying their honeymoon period, 110 Democrats -- nearly half of the 232 Democrats -- have sided with a majority of the caucus on at least 98 percent of the votes cast this year.

Now, consider this from the Washington Post from the same day:

On legislation, Republicans have at times shown remarkable disunity.

Last week, Boehner denounced a Democratic bill against energy price gouging as pointless political pandering, only to see it receive 56 Republican votes, including McCotter's. For months, Republican leaders had denounced Democrats for loading an Iraq war spending bill with nonmilitary spending that they called wasteful pork. Then last week, when Democrats separated that spending into another measure, 123 Republicans voted for it -- including House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had been expected to hold his party off the bill.

Why are these levels of unity and disunity so historic? My guess is that the biggest reason is that the Democrats have been out of legislative power in the House for 12 years. As the GOP controlled the agenda-setting power, the Democrats collected a series of popular, Democrat-unifying, Republican-dividing issues over this period of time - issues that the Republican agenda-setters avoided because they were bad for the GOP. Now that the Democrats have the agenda-setting power, they can finally hold votes on these proposals. A good parallel might be made to George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles effort, All Things Must Pass, is arguably the best of any post-Beatles effort by any of them, even Ringo. George had been smothered by the group dynamic, being limited to only two songs per record. By the time the group split, George had a backlog of songs that was so great that he could fill two full records with some of the best music of the time. So it goes now with the Democrats. They have a backlog of issues that resonate with the public, unify their side, and divide the other side. With the majority in both chambers, they can now set the agenda. And they are using that power to their maximum advantage.

What about immigration reform? This is really an inefficient issue for both sides in Congress. The reason is that it divides everybody (Republicans more than Democrats), and nothing that is comprehensive seems to resonate with the public, which makes it unlikely to pass (and thus more damaging to Democrats than Republicans). If your business is politics, this kind of issue is just bad for business. Nothing gets accomplished, and pundits like Bob Franken and Dan Balz write you off as useless. Who needs that?

So, who brought immigration reform to the table? President Bush, of course. He retains some power in the second mode, even though his party's caucus really does not. It was by his encouragement that the 109th and 110th Congresses undertook this subject. He placed on the agenda an issue that relatively few desired to have placed on the agenda. This is a sign that, at least as of last week, he was not yet a lame duck. He still had some power left to wield. This was power in the second mode.

From the recent Iraq debate, we can also see that Bush still has some power in the first mode left to wield: he was able to induce the Democrats to do what they did not really want to do. Of course, his power in this mode is very limited. The reason Bush was able to wield power on the Iraq issue is because he is protecting the status quo, and our system has a strong status quo bias. We should not expect him to be able to wield such power when he seeks to change the status quo (more on this presently). So, while Bush has some power in the first mode left, it is on the wane.

So also is his power in the second mode. For the only issue that he could place on the table is one that divided his own party. It was also an issue on which there was never anything but a slim chance of legislative success. This is not the sort of issue he ideally wants to place on the table, but he had no other choice. Democrats wouldn't hear any talk of extending his tax cuts, of reforming social security, of reforming the tax code, of generally creating an ownership society. Nuts to all of that, as far as they are concerned. And rightly so, from a political perspective. Why should they allow the President to place issues on the table that might divide them and resonate with the public? The only issues on which they will indulge the President are issues that divide his own party. This is a sign that his power in the second mode, his agenda-setting power, has been on the wane for quite some time.

The failure for Bush on the immigration issue is, I think, fairly telling. He failed not because he lacked power in the second mode. He was indeed able to induce Congress to take up an issue that he wanted it to take up. His failure was really due to an inability to induce legislators to alter current policy as he wants it altered. He no longer can put the "squeeze" on legislators and directly induce them to do what they would not otherwise do, at least when it comes to changing the status quo. Indeed, this was so much the case that - so far as I know - the White House played no significant role in the kind of politicking that Senators Kennedy and Lott did. They did not even make a serious effort to arm twist. His failure on immigration indicates that whatever first mode power he has left, it is really limited to protecting the current course of government.

What's more, I would wager that this was Bush's last exercise of power in the second mode. I cannot think of another issue that he might be able to place upon the table for consideration. He and Democrats disagree too vehemently on essentially every other issue of any importance, and his standing with the public is so low that Democrats will be better off by rejecting his suggestions for the legislative agenda than accepting them.

So - where does that leave the President? Thanks to the Constitution, he still possesses some measure of power in the first mode. Indeed, I think that all the power that is left for Bush to wield is the set of formal authorities granted to him by our founding document. These powers enable him to do little more than stop Congress from altering the status quo. No longer can he use his prestige and authority to place issues on the table for consideration. No longer, further, can he induce legislators to alter the status quo as he prefers to see it altered. I think those days are finished. I think that the failure of immigration reform marks the final stop in Bush's long descent into - to borrow a phrase from presidential scholar Richard Neustadt - a "constitutional clerk." Barring some sort of phenomenal occurrence, I think that Bush is now a president who can do little more than wield the formal powers granted him by Article II to protect the choices he made when he wielded what - I think we can all admit - was a uniquely vast amount of political power. This will make him more than a lame duck, but not by much.

-Jay Cost

More of the Same

In response to his self-righteous screed today in the WaPo, I have a question for Dan Balz: just what country does he think he lives in?

Mr. Balz writes:

The collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's most prominent sponsors. More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington.

The defeat of the legislation can be laid at the doorstep of opponents on the right and left, on congressional leaders who couldn't move their troops and on an increasingly weakened president and his White House team. But together it added up to another example of a polarized political system in which the center could not hold.

The partisan blame game was already at fever pitch as the bill was going down yesterday. But to those far removed from the backrooms of Capitol Hill, what happened will fuel cynicism toward a political system that appears incapable of finding ways to resolve the nation's big challenges.

This is exactly the type of ignorance against which I argued this morning. How is it that somebody who has spent so many years in Washington can write with such shock and disappointment about the defeat of the bill?

Ugh. Where to begin?

Let's start with this "center failing to hold" nonsense. That's as good a place as any. Our system has a super-majority requirement built into it. The "center" never "holds" - if by "center" you mean the middle 33% of the legislature, and by "holds" you mean imposes its legislative preferences on the other 67%. That is not how our system works. Legislation passes if and only if a large majority of legislators supports it.

And, more broadly, what kind of nonsense is it to blame the failure on our "political culture?" This is exactly what I meant when I wrote that we occasionally are overtaken with a strange kind of solipsism. Implicit in Balz's argument is the absurd assertion that this problem is unique to us today. For goodness sake! Supporters of Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams of procuring an underage American prostitute for the Czar of Russia!

And it is indeed ironic that Balz should predict more cynicism. Maybe, just maybe, the public is made more cynical because media elites who have the power to communicate with them fail to understand how our system works, and thus unfairly compare it to an impracticable ideal. Maybe, just maybe, if Balz et al. would write, "Once again our system worked. A sizeable minority strongly opposed this bill, and our system does not pass legislation that alienates so many of our fellow citizens. This is reason to celebrate because this is why, after 200 years, we still have a healthy, fully functioning Republic!" the public would not be made to be more cynical.

So, I'll ask again: just where does Dan Balz think he is? This is America. Our system was intentionally designed to prevent divisive legislative from becoming law. If Mr. Balz wishes to live in a government that demonstrates a capacity for coherent, programmatic, "responsible" legislative activity, over and above the objections of the minority, there are flights to Heathrow every day from both Dulles and Ronald Reagan (or are Washingtonians still calling it Washington National?). Otherwise, he needs to deal with the fact that the "user's manual" to our Constitution is called The Federalist Papers.

And, of course, we cannot have a "the system failed us again" story without reference to the following absurd idea.

The collective failure of the two parties already appears to have stimulated interest in a third-party candidate for president in 2008 whose main promise would be to make Washington work. It is far too early to assess the viability of such a candidate, but it is easy to imagine the immigration impasse finding its way into a television commercial if someone such as New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decides to run.

Ahhh...yes. This is precisely what we need in Washington. Our two parties cannot get along, so let us bring in a third party! This makes perfect sense. The problem is of course that our political representatives are...too political! Somehow, bringing in a new politician, one who would have no natural allies in Congress, would solve all of our problems! I am sure such a man would be able to force his political opponents to do as he wishes!

What we have here, buried deep within the premise of this story, is a fallacy of composition that our media outlets have made. Just because Mr. Balz knows all about the minute-to-minute events of our government does not mean he understands how our government as a whole operates. He obviously does not.

This fallacy of composition is precisely what justifies our media's burgeoning cadre of "wise elders," the journalist-turned-pundit class that has had bestowed upon it "expert" status by editors and producers. Journalists who cover the day-to-day of American politics have been improperly certified as experts on how our system works, have been rechristened as "pundits," and have been empowered not only to report the news, but to explain its broader significance to us. There is an inferential error at the core of this certification, which is why so many of our political talk shows, which rely increasingly upon said "experts," are little more than forty-two minute collections of the mindless platitudes that these people - who are, in reality, out of their depths - offer.

Thank goodness it's Friday!

-Jay Cost

Mr. Madison Votes Nay

In the wake of the immigration reform bill's defeat, I'd like to make a comment about journalists/pundits analyses of government. I find that, in subtle ways, their misunderstanding of the structure of our politics undermines public confidence in our system. Pundits, and the citizens who listen to them, are far too quick to label legislative defeats - like that which occurred with immigration reform - as "failures," when in fact they are a consequence of a political system that has held us in good stead for quite a long while.

Continue reading "Mr. Madison Votes Nay" »

Can the State Parties Pressure GOP Senators on Immigration?

This is a question one might be inclined to ask after reading this article. Though the query is not explicitly raised, it came to my mind after this lead:

President Bush's immigration bill is hurting fundraising by the Republican National Committee, but fierce grass-roots opposition to the legislation is helping several state Republican parties.

Tina Benkiser, chairwoman of the Republican Party in the president's home state of Texas, says raising money has been successful "in large part to our principled stance against illegal immigration." Since the beginning of 2006, when substantial immigration debate began, she says, "the Republican Party of Texas has experienced an exponential increase in direct-mail donations from supporters statewide.

So, can the state Republican parties force the GOP caucus to change its mind?

The answer is: probably not.

The state party might be able to exercise a soft power over senators insofar as it is a good barometer of the mood of the party-in-the-electorate. This can matter. Obviously, senators do not want to alienate their bases in such a way that they lose their support in the next election. However, one of the best things about being in the Senate is that you can legislate without being too worried about the public mood. This is by design. Remember that initially state legislators selected senators. The 17th amendment brought some democratic accountability to the upper chamber of Congress, but senators are still comfortably removed from the whims of the public.

Beyond this soft power, which will be muted by the six-year term of senators, the state party really has little-to-no influence on incumbent federal legislators. The state party's role is really one of limited and unconditional support for incumbent federal partisans. To the extent that it expends resources on behalf of federal candidates, there really are few strings attached. A state party could - in theory at least - influence senators by threatening to recruit and endorse a primary challenger. But I can think of no instances in recent history where that has happened. This is unsurprising. Defeating an incumbent senator in a primary would probably be tantamount to handing the seat over to the other side. Thus, so long as your incumbent demonstrates some appreciable difference between him/herself and the other party, supporting him/her is still the rational choice.

No - the state party really has little influence over senators. Its relationship is really characterized by service - it helps its senators win reelection. While this article seconds what we already knew - the GOP grassroots is mightily agitated over this bill - I cannot imagine a single senator worrying about some kind of retribution from his or her state party.

-Jay Cost