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Against the Big-Bang Theory of Legislation

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Here's a fact: We will not save health care this year. Or next year. Or the next. Here's another one: We will not pass legislation capable of averting climate change this year. Or the next. Or the next.

We might pass legislation improving the health-care system, expanding coverage to tens of millions of people, and instituting some needed delivery-side reforms. We might pass a bill that begins to clamp down on the carbon we emit. But, as Tim Fernholz argues, it doesn't end here. After eight years of stasis on these issues, it begins here. Quoth Fernholz:

As we see a lot of big, landmark style bills coming to the floor in the coming months and stress out over whether they are "good" or "bad," failure or success, and instead look at legislating over the longer term as a process of constantly pushing toward better policy. Obviously, congress' institutional structure -- it's very hard to pass anything substantial or with any kind of speed -- creates an incentive geared towards achieving huge breakthroughs, since you may only get this chance -- and this majority -- once...But there's no law saying that Barack Obama and the rest of the Democrats can't take another bite at the health care apple -- or energy, or financial regulations, or whatever -- after the mid-terms or, hell, as soon as the first bill passes.

Tim's editor Mark Schmitt has also written along these lines. It's what he calls "the Audacity of Patience":

For all the romance of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days, history suggests that presidents do not get a mandate as a mechanical function of their electoral margin, but in fact they build it over time. They earn it not by winning but by governing. They assemble coalitions and use them again and again, and build institutions and make them work. While many good policies and necessary emergency measures were passed in the first 100 days of the New Deal, the innovations that lasted -- those that defined politics until Reagan -- came later, after FDR had consolidated power, forced the Supreme Court to accept a new set of assumptions about government's role in the economy, and won the 1934 mid-term election. Similarly, Reagan did not win a decisive mandate for conservative policies in 1980; rather, like Obama, he was the beneficiary of a coalition made up of equal parts support for his conservatism and revulsion at the previous administration's incompetence. It was not until August 1981, when he assembled bipartisan coalitions to pass his budget- and tax-cutting plans, that Reagan can be said to have had a mandate for conservative policies.

Mark doesn't mention this explicitly, but another force for revisiting legislation is that, sometimes, things work. And then we make them bigger. Medicaid, for instance, has grown over the years. So too has Social Security. And S-CHIP. And, for that matter, the FDIC. Passing legislation doesn't settle the argument over its worth. But seeing it in action can often go a ways towards answering the question. And if the answer is that this approach appears to ease the problem at an acceptable cost, we often build on it.

One way of understanding the health reform and cap-and-trade bills currently under consideration is as large-scale experiments of new(ish) policy approaches to enduring problems. Neither legislative initiative will be big enough to solve the problem it's meant to address. But both should be big enough to answer the question of whether they could solve their respective problems.


Photo credit: AP Photo's Ron Edmonds.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 25, 2009; 6:05 PM ET
 
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Comments

This is EXACTLY what I've been telling my friends and colleagues. We are not going to change the health care system this year or next or perhaps even pass comprehensive reform. But we are going to "start" this year on a journey to do just that over the long run. It's a lesson hard for a trigger happy, instant gratification crazy public to learn. Even harder for policy wonks!

Posted by: LindaB1 | June 25, 2009 8:25 PM | Report abuse

As a poker player Obama knows the patience can pay off big. Obama knows or is getting to know the players at his table and he is waiting them out, and Obama knows that this is not a tournament where blinds go up and eventually he has to push all in. This is a cash game where you build an image, learn your opponents strengths and weaknesses, and then you wait until you have position, cards and chips so you can exploit your image and your knowledge.

I was rooting for a huge first hundred day mandate push, but if Obama can make his game work for the country and we get some good legislation that makes a difference I am more then willing to admit I was wrong.

Posted by: jbou891 | June 25, 2009 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Not buying it. Some things have to take time, like increasing the number of primary physicians or nurses. But other things, like ensuring universal access to affordable health care, do not. It can be done as quickly and easily as the way we shovelled billions of dollars to AIG counterparties, on grounds that the world would end if we didn't.

How long did universal access take the UK, Canada, France, Taiwan, etc? I'm guessing it was one session of legislature.

Hesitate to disagree with Mark Schmidt, but politics is not policy, and techniques that are successful for politics are not necessarily successful for policy. Policy often requires you to do things, on seemingly minor issues, that are completely out of bounds of conventional political wisdom.

Examples of this are the California electricity crisis, where Gray Davis's pragmatic, centrist (but incorrect) response destroyed his Governorship, and his career; Cleveland's electricity crisis, where Kucinich's polarizing, extremist (but correct) response destroyed his mayorship; but saved ratepayers billions of dollars, and eventually saved his reputation; and the Peso crisis of 1995, which Krugman wrote a Slate column about (which I can't seem to find).

Posted by: roublen | June 26, 2009 12:35 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to have to agree with roublen above that you and Mark are confusing or collapsing politics with policy, a danger given your locations inside the Beltway. If Obama enacts bad policies in response to political pressures, he and/or the Dems in Congress will be blamed for the bad effects of those policies. There is an assumption here that these policies will sit there like sculptures waiting to be revised ad infinitum. Meanwhile the questionable or negative effects of those policies or even just their appearance, could provide easy fodder for the opposition which could fritter away the political advantages that Dems currently have. No, I don't think there is necessarily one shot; but for the Dems to blatantly disregard popular opinion about health care is all about inside the beltway navel gazing if not the more troubling influence-buying. For global warming/energy they may have more than one shot and I hope they do, as the public is right now not that interested in those issues.

Posted by: michaelterra | June 26, 2009 3:30 AM | Report abuse

Found the Krugman column I was looking for:

http://www.pkarchive.org/crises/ClintonTripFinestMoment.html

". . .And so one day Rubin and Summers marched into the Oval Office with their plan -- and, incredibly, Clinton agreed. Mexico's economy, after plunging 10% in the first year after the crisis, has recovered most of the lost ground. Private investors are returning, and the Mexican government, years ahead of schedule, has repaid that emergency loan.

So what are the morals of the story? One is that sometimes it pays to listen to experts like Larry Summers -- and Clinton did. The other is that sometimes it actually pays to do the unpopular thing. If Clinton had listened to the polls that winter day, Mexico probably would be a basket case -- and Bob Dole probably would be president."

Posted by: roublen | June 26, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

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