Incremental Reform Is Still An Option!

by Conor Friedersdorf

The smarter elements in Washington DC are starting to pick up on the fact that it’s not tactical errors on the part of the president that make it hard to get things done, it’s the fact that the country has become ungovernable.

-- Matthew Yglesias

As President Obama and Congressional Democrats struggle to reform health care and pass legislation on climate change, we're starting to hear a lot of progressive wonks complain that structural impediments are responsible for our woes.

"Ungovernable America." That's the headline on the post linked above. Isn't it strange that the folks making these arguments don't even feel a need to grapple with the fact that the United States has prospered more than any society in human history during the 220 years that we've operated under our current governing structure?

James Joyner makes the same point:

There’s a general consensus, which I’m part of, that our national politics have gotten more polarized and ugly in recent years.  We’re not where we were in the early 1800s, much less the mid-to-late 1800s, but it’s bad.   The filibuster, once a rare tool used to fight truly major changes, is now a routine legislative tactic.  And that’s frustrating and perhaps should be changed at the margins.  (For example, presidential appointees should get an up-or-down majority rule vote.)

That said, the institutions have not changed substantially in recent memory.  Some readers may recall the days of the George W. Bush administration, when a president with narrower margins in both Houses of Congress managed to get all manner of legislation passed, including a massive expansion of the Medicare entitlement and the authorization to fight two wars.  Off the books, no less!  During those days, Tom Daschle and then Harry Reid used every tool at their disposal to block legislation.  Sometimes, they were successful, as with Social Security privatization, perhaps the signature domestic plank of Bush’s re-election campaign; sometimes, less so.

But I actually think there is another wrinkle worth raising here. Let's return to something I argued back in July while guest-blogging at The Dish:

The worst thing about "comprehensive reform" efforts are that they shut the average citizen out of the legislative process by making bills so complicated that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen to properly evaluate whether on balance it is a wise or unwise measure. Who can predict all the effects of a 3,000 page bill spanning all manner of issues? Often times not even the legislature itself. Certainly not the press, which often focuses on bits of the legislation that won't actually have the most impact, sometimes because legislators themselves are deliberately obscuring what's actually at stake.

Comprehensive reform also seems more prone to capture by narrow lobbying interests who take advantage of its complexity to insert provisions they'd be hard pressed to get away with were more discrete questions being addressed.

And in August, I wrote:

If health care reform is defeated, one lesson should be that it is easier to scare people in misleading ways when your legislative reform package is so ambitious, ill-defined, complicated and all-encompassing that confusion about what exactly it entails and the probably consequences are rational, even inevitable. Politicians should conclude that their time is better spent taking smaller, discrete steps to reform the health care system, even though incremental legislative efforts aren’t the stuff of historical legacies or televised ceremonies where parchment is signed with a fancy pen.

Perhaps you've heard the counterarguments -- that health care reform has to be comprehensive. Or let's broaden the conversation. Remember when we had to have "comprehensive immigration reform" during the Bush Administration? Or let's look back to 1994, when it was Bill Clinton who sought comprehensive health care reform. Instead America got years more with the status quo.

Of course, that isn't the only way to address policy problems.

The Senate is, to borrow a famous description, a saucer where legislation is cooled -- that is its design. Thus it is extremely difficult to comprehensively reform anything. But that hardly means that problems cannot be addressed by chipping away at them a bit at a time. It merely means that they cannot be addressed in a way that is emotionally satisfying to wonks who aspire to write a white paper that comprehensively solves a problem, or presidents who want a legacy like FDR's, or Congressional reps who want to pass landmark legislation with their names on it, or a political press that loves covering things that are "historic" or "the biggest in a generation."

Progressives who find this a big rather than a feature should recognize that without this feature of the Senate, that Ronald Reagan would've done far more to gut the New Deal's legacy, and that President George W. Bush would've privatized Social Security shortly before the stock market tanked. Well, they'll respond, that doesn't change the fact that health care is a historic challenge, and that it cannot be addressed by piecemeal reform. Really? So there isn't any discrete improvement to America's health care system that you can pass?

Maybe they'd even be better than the "comprehensive bill" that may still pass!