Against the Big-Bang Theory of Legislation
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.
June 25, 2009; 6:05 PM ET
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