Offline Charlie says, "The continual decline in support for health care reform and climate change legislation [was because] Congress created incomprehensible quagmires." I agree with that completely, but differ in part with his assessment that this resulted from a certain strategic error by Obama:
He's learning the hard way that he'll have to govern from the center. He turned the key pieces of his legislative agenda—health care and climate—over to liberal congressional leaders and committee chairs, and now we have a dog's breakfast on two critical issues which he'll have a very tough time turning into saleable meals.
It is a dog's breakfast, but I attribute the cause more to supermajority rules than to negotiations within the majority caucus. It seems to me that more often than not a bill that has majority support gets worse when additional votes have to be rounded up and "paid for" with watering-down amendments, earmarks, and other legislative currency. As the managers have to move further and further ideologically to pick up more votes, the price they pay is frequently to make amendments that change a reasonably coherent bill that has a good chance of doing what it proposes to do into a bill beset with crippling and even contradictory provisions that is in fact a dog's breakfast.
A recent example of that is the odyssey of the public option in the pending Senate healthcare legislation: It went from being a robust Medicare-like proposal that would truly have threatened for-profit insurers and driven down premiums to something that is in the bill only because it will be a very unattractive option available to hardly anybody—a public option in name only and probably a waste of money. Now suppose the Senate didn't need just 60 votes but 100—what would that bill have looked like? I submit that any healthcare bill that got 100 votes would be trivial or a travesty or both. Similarly, every year in the California state budget process, which requires a 2/3 majority in both houses, the concessions that have to be made to get the last vote or two are just nauseating. Building supermajorities makes legislation worse, not better. That is particularly true when there is no ideological middle in a legislative body, as I have shown here there clearly is not in the US Senate.
Let's get back to majority rule in all matters. Those who won the last election should grow a spine, take responsibility, write bills they're proud of, pass them with just enough votes, and be accountable in the next election. If they lose, let the other bunch of rascals repeal it. That would give us clearer policy options, less internally contradictory and wasteful legislation, more personal accountability, a more engaged and informed electorate, and overall better government. Also, it would seem more propitious to run for reelection on a record that people can understand, even if they disagree with it, than to run an entire campaign wearing a dog's breakfast.
Howard Dean says the pending Senate healthcare bill will "hang out to dry" every Democratic incumbent running for reelection this fall.
"It's easy to campaign on repealing something if no one knows what the something is," Dean said. "And fundamentally people don't understand what the president's healthcare plan is."
In other words, the Dems will be wearing a dog's breakfast. How did the bill become such a mess? The White House says:
Throughout the debate on health insurance reform, Republican concepts and proposals have been included in legislation. In fact, hundreds of Republican amendments were adopted during the committee mark-up process. As a result, both the Senate and the House passed key Republican proposals that are incorporated into the President’s Proposal.
For all that reaching out to Republicans, the Dems got exactly one Republican vote in the House and none in the Senate. It's hard for me to see wisdom, or even sanity, in that way of legislating.
Hat tip to Christine for the Dean link.
Judge Richard Posner recounts the history of the filibuster and gives a somewhat balanced account of the pros and cons. He ends up saying Congress should not pass healthcare reform with a simple majority in the reconciliation process because polls show the public doesn't like the bill. I posted this comment on his blog:
If we should be reluctant to adopt by a simple majority a program that polls say a majority of the electorate does not like, why would it be more legitimate if adopted by a supermajority of equally out-of-touch Senators?
If Posner's idea is that the bill will be amended to be more "moderate" because of the supermajority requirement then we need the proof, or at least the argument, that a more "moderate" bill would be favored by the electorate. In fact, the opposite seems true of health care--Massachusetts voters disliked the pending bill because it lacks a public option and other provisions to make health care more affordable.
Taking the supermajority idea to the extreme, I think we can all agree that if the votes of 100 Senators were required, only a bill that was totally trivial and/or a total travesty of internal contradictions and earmarks could get passed. In California every summer we have the most nauseating deals made to buy the last vote or two to pass a budget. I submit supermajority requirements tend to make legislation less workable, more expensive, and special interest friendly while simultaneously diluting legislator responsibility and accountability. We don't get better legislation, we get worse legislation, and legislators earn voter contempt in the process.
I think there is merit to the idea of a supermajority requirement that gets smaller over time. One proposal is that the first cloture vote would require 60 votes, the next one 55, and after that only 51. That would serve the purpose of cooling the so-called cup of House passions in the Senate saucer for a while, not that you really need a supermajority to do that. The California Assembly and Senate have historically been brutal to ill-considered bills from the other house.