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Why No One Pulls Triggers

Kevin Drum notes that trigger ideas pop up fairly often as compromise proposals but never quite seem to make it into the final legislation:

Alan Greenspan and Paul O'Neill tried to sell the idea of a trigger for the 2001 tax cuts, but nobody bought it. The Baker Commission basically proposed triggers for withdrawing from Iraq, but that turned out to be DOA. And here in California, when higher car registration fees got automatically triggered by a growing budget deficit, it caused such hysteria that we ended up tossing out our governor and electing an action star in his place. Didn't work out so well.

There was a trigger option in Medicare Part D, to be sure. But in general, Drum is right. The reason is that substantive debates about legislation are a bit of a farce. The concept of a trigger for the public option is actually pretty savvy if the two sides were fighting over the empirical question of "can the health insurance industry control costs and increase competition in a constructive fashion?" If conservatives are right that a restructured market would compel insurers to cut costs and increase competition and generally clean up their behavior, then that's good enough. But if liberals are proven right that a handful of new regulations isn't sufficient to create a working insurance market, then the public option would "trigger" into existence and we'd give that solution a try.

The problem is that there's no real constituency for that compromise: Liberals want a public plan because they want a public plan. Conservatives don't want a public plan because they don't want a public plan. Moreover, conservatives don't just oppose the public plan, but most of them actually oppose passage of a bill. The number of additional votes you can get by making substantive concessions is thus much smaller than the number of additional votes you could get if substantive concessions were actually the sticking point.

Now, it's possible that Olympia Snowe's position is powerful enough that she can be a constituency of one, and that'll be sufficient. But that's because her role in the debate is different than everybody else's, and she's actually interested in substantive compromises. But the compromise, then, is with the Snowe Party, not the Republican Party, or conservatives.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 4, 2009; 10:28 AM ET
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Why not flip the trigger around? Instead of having the default be the public option isn't created but if a certain level of (presumably easy) private insurance improvement isn't met the public option is triggered instead have the default be the public option will be created but if a certain level of (much more stringent) private insurance improvement is met then the public option will be canceled?

Posted by: redwards95 | September 4, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

In Snowe we trust then.

If a trigger with real teeth can't be passed then reform with a public option can't either. On the other hand if a weak trigger can't pass then a plan with no public option can't pass either.

But some form of trigger can pass even when neither a plan with nor without could do so.

Posted by: TheIncidentalEconomist | September 4, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Triggers typically don't work because it's relatively easy to change the trigger: it takes at least a rules change to implement 'solid' trigger.

I'm still surprised that I haven't heard much from the Snowe Party [a good name] regarding medical records. I would have guessed that the records issue would have been at least as contentious as the public option issue.

Posted by: rmgregory | September 4, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Ezra - In addition to Snowe, how do the "centrist" Democrats who oppose a full public option (Nelson, Conrad, Lieberman, perhaps Baucus) fit into your framework? Can we get all Democrats plus Snowe onboard for a trigger option?

The public option is not the end-all and be-all for me, but I am glad the House is fighting for one. Even if the Senate votes out a bill without any kind of public option whatsoever, perhaps the conference compromise could be a trigger that gets 60 votes in the Senate.

Posted by: RS22 | September 4, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Its not just the trigger. Snowe wants the insurance to be junk. She wants the subsidies to be too small. She wants the dangerously stupid free rider provision. She does not want it to be universal.

Progressive are being told to accept a plan that will leave some 25 million uninsured, millions more underinsured, and a trillion dollar infusion of money into the "enemy" private insurance corporations.

Posted by: JonWa | September 4, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Snowe apparently said, "This option would be available from day one in any state where – after market and insurance reforms are implemented – affordable, competitive plans still do not exist."

It seems to me that this is almost preferable to the house plan that wouldn't take effect until 2013 anyway.

Posted by: amsilvr | September 4, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse


Snowe is refering to year 2015 at the earliest. "after market and insurance reforms" means after 2013 the year reforms go into place.

Posted by: JonWa | September 4, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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