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Congressmen matter

The public option options are a good example of one of the really striking elements of the legislative process: Senators just dream this stuff up.

In theory, that's obvious. Bills don't come from the Bill Fairy. They come from senators and congressmen. But watching it up close is really striking. Kent Conrad spends a weekend chatting with his staff and suddenly co-ops are on the agenda. John Kerry's staff finds something like the excise tax proposal in an old document from 1994 and suddenly that's how the Senate Finance Committee is funding health-care reform. The public option debate is locked between a full option and a trigger concept until Tom Carper wakes up one morning and points out that states could be allowed to simply create their own, and then Chuck Schumer notices that you could simply tweak that proposal to allow states to reject the public option if they don't want it.

This is how bills get made. Congressmen don't simply act as vessels for existing ideas that have a broad level of elite consensus. Fairly frequently, they -- or their staffs, or their lobbyist contacts, or their policy advisers -- simply have a new idea, and within a week or two, that idea becomes central to the process. This is all the more prevalent late in the game when pure policy concepts are being replaced by crass political compromises. Fairly few in the think-tank world build policy for what happens when Ben Nelson decides the initial idea will entail a bit too much government intervention, and he'd like it to work 20 percent less well.

It's a bit bizarre to watch. But it sure seems like fun.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 22, 2009; 2:31 PM ET
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Next: Snowe: If the bill has a public option, I will support a filibuster


Not so fun when your $450/month COBRA is running out and no one will write you a private policy because your hemoglobin has been slightly below normal your entire life, you've never had a symptom, you have letters from doctors saying that it's non-pathological, and you've never had any major illness or injury in your life.

Posted by: akmakm | October 22, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

wait, isn't the liberal media the "bill fairy for this administration?"

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 22, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Not much fun for the federal employees who have to figure out how to administer the hare-brained ideas that make it into the final legislation, as I can testify from a quarter century of experience trying to do so. The statute for the program I was involved in had becomed so convoluted and self-contradictory because of various congressional special provisions that it had become almost impossible to adminster in any fair or logical manner, a major reason I threw in the towel as soon as I was eligible to retire. Just the thought of trying to find a way to write regulations to implement many of the concepts thrown around in the health care debate gives me a splitting headache. (Fortunately, federal retiress have EXCELLENT health insurance!)

Posted by: exgovgirl | October 22, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Nope. It sounds like a friggin nightmare.

Posted by: feral1 | October 22, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

this sounds like a reason for people who want to influence federal policy to get on the staff of some influential Senate deal-maker

Posted by: jfcarro | October 22, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Of course this type of system means that self important blowhards like Arlen Specter pontificate a bunch of nonsense without knowing simple, base-level information about the policy the are creating. For instance, it had never occurred to Specter until last week that our broken health care system might hurt our economy by creating something known to the rest of the country by "job lock"

Posted by: flounder2 | October 22, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

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