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.
October 22, 2009; 2:31 PM ET
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