Wednesday, March 10, 2010

reconciliation and the health care bill

It is now clear that there will be an attempt, however successful, to pass health care reform via the "reconciliation" route. My guess is that it won't or will only partially succeed, since moderate Democrats, whose support Obama needs, will not want to endanger their political futures on an increasingly unpopular measure. Still, the effort will be made, and it has to be given a serious chance of succeeding.

Supporters of the reconciliation route often argue that Republicans did the same thing when they were in power, so why shouldn't we? I think this is actually a bit of a stretch, since health care reform--a huge regulatory program with some tax and spending aspects--is rather more removed from the purposes of reconciliation than most tax and spending bills. (Imagine, for example, a change in Middle East policy being rammed through on the theory that it would save money by cutting aid to Israel.) But even if the comparison does hold, it is still not convincing.

For almost a year, everyone has understood that the "game" in health care involved the necessity of reaching 60 votes. The proposals were designed and argued, the issues debated, and the entire process shaped by this assumption. Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts on a promise to deny the 60th vote , and opposed by Democrats on grounds he would do so. To say now that we didn't need sixty votes--heads we win, tails you lose, so to speak--will appear to most people like changing the rules in the middle of the gam. It's a little bit like the Phillies moving the right field fence out in anticipation of playing the Yankees, who have a lot of power hitters, in another World Series: it may be legal, but it doesn't look kosher, and it's unlikely to convince anyone who wasn't on your side to begin with.

I think that maneuvers of this type also feed a growing cynicism about the electoral process and, inadvertently, strengthen the Tea Party Movement and its adherents. The Tea Party types argue, in effect, that the Obama Administration is illegitimate: that it somehow manipulated the political system, the campaign finance rules, and perhaps even Obama's citizenship in order to win an election it didn't observe. The response to this ought to be a patient (or if you prefer, impatient) explanation that this was not the case. Instead the Administration actually does change a rule which everyone had understood to be fair in the middle of the process, with support from clever "scholars"--most of whom do not even bother to hide their partisan affiliation anymore--in doing so. How in the world will this do anything but strengthen the most extreme elements, or convince them that there is any alternative to the wholesale replacement of this Government?


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