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The "debate" in the House

When you watch C-SPAN, there's a little chryon across the bottom of the screen that say's "Today's Debate." You hear that word a lot when it comes to Congress. "Debate." The rules today allowed for four hours of "debate." The Senate is expected to have a couple weeks for "debate." But spend the day watching the various legislators speechify for a few seconds each and it comes pretty clear that the proceedings have nothing to do with debate, as traditionally understood. These are statements. The longer Congress has, the more statements you get. Moments ago, Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) stood up to add his contribution to the debate. "I will vote no," he explained, "because that's the vote that says 'I love my country.'" Cicero would be proud.

The reality is that the debate that led to this bill did not really take place across congressional committees and floor speeches. It took place in think tanks and campaigns. In policy forums and among experts. The basic shape of the House's bill is virtually identical to the bills we saw during the campaign, and they were all expressions of the ideas being developed and refined in think tanks and policy shops and advocacy groups ever since Clinton's effort failed.

And good thing, too. Most members of Congress know virtually nothing about health care. Even the relevant committees only have a handful of knowledgeable legislators. Congress doesn't debate the legislation so much as debate its politics. Watching Congress consider this bill is like watching campaign ads being recorded. It's not like watching people talk about hard issues in a serious way. It's sad, actually.

But it's why, if you take a few steps back, so little has really changed in the basic bill. There's a trope in Washington that Congress should be more deliberative, that it should take more time to "debate" these big issues. But more time spent arguing over the precise contours of the public plan, or the exact language governing abortion coverage, or whether a bureaucrat will pull the plug on grandma, serves neither to enlighten the citizenry nor improve the legislation. Congress hasn't debated health-care reform. It's debated a narrow subject called "the politics of health-care reform."

The bill, however, has been debated, and at length. It has been debated in thousands of op-eds and blog posts. It has been talked through on countless news programs and radio shows. It has been the subject of endless expert panels and summary briefs. It has been estimated, analyzed, and modeled. Graphed and tabled and plugged into spreadsheets. And it has survived intact. It has the support of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and AARP, AFL-CIO and Families USA, SEIU and the American Medical Association. Yesterday, eleven eminent economists released a letter (pdf) calling for passage of the bill.

Few of the debaters think the bill perfect, but most think it a step forward. That, however, is where their influence stops. They are the debaters, not the doers. And they have done their job. Now it is time for Congress to do its job.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 7, 2009; 6:46 PM ET
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Next: The gender politics of the abortion "compromise"


I find that "debate" in the Senate does occasionally function as debate. It's rare, but it's not unheard of.

Posted by: NicholasBeaudrot | November 7, 2009 7:02 PM | Report abuse

People of all stripes who have opposed the bill have been marginalized and ridiculed. This goes for teabaggers as well as single payer and public option experts. Even supporters of the Presiden'ts plan admit (see John Cassidy in the latest New Yorker) the bill is based upon a lie. You either believe the lie is justified or you don't, but no honest person can deny that the American people are being lied to.

This is Mitt Romney's health care plan. (In fact Romney's is much better.) If Dems had made clear from the beginning their strategy was to pass a Republican plan, people would have rightly advised putting the issue on the back burner. Let Republicans pass it. Then Dems could then be the heroes who fix it with a robust public option.

Now the Dems credibility is shot and the pitchforks will be coming for them. And the Republicans will not be riding to the rescue with a public option or adminstered rates. The Republicans will do nothing, content to let health care be a festering political sore for Democrats. Meanwhile American families will be fined and imprisoned (see the JCT letter of November 5 for details) for not buying insurance they can't afford. And rich health care interests will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Posted by: bmull | November 7, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

It makes you wonder where the "debate" aspect of Congress went, if it ever existed. Read Hansard (an insomnia cure, in all honesty) from Canada or the UK for those debates outside of the staged battles of PMQs, and you'll actually see something that qualifies as debate. The people who speak generally have something worth saying. The ones who don't stay silent. There are theatrical moments, born from the days of the college debate club, but there's engagement, as opposed to one-minute soundbites. Those are parliamentary systems with intense partisanship, but in the chamber, they're still talking to each other.

I know that some people bemoan the arrival of cameras, which, combined with campaign ads, means that everyone's speaking for television. But that applies to other chambers.

Perhaps it's partly because representing an entire state, or a district of 700,000, creates a different kind of legislator. Perhaps the permanent election cycle has an impact in the House. There's certainly a downside to "revise and extend", which creates a record that never took place.

It's all fairly saddening.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 7, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Two points:

Citing the AMA's endorsement ties you to its cynicism. They went along only when promised that one of the bill's primary funding mechanisms would never be implemented. This is the "doc fix" that blows a 250B hole in the "cuts the deficit" line.

Even if I bought the idea that the 2T+ spending increases (over the first 10 year period following the bill's full implementation in 2014) were good in themselves, I can't accept that we have that much money to add to an already bloated part of our society. Since we're not serious about paying for it (see point 1) we're going to have to borrow the money from Asia. How can that make sense?

Posted by: lfstevens | November 7, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse

The new taxes in this bill vastly exceed the putative savings to be generated so it's a gross distortion to suggest that the reforms in the bill "bend the cost curve" or "save" money. And, as lfstevens corectly points out, a lot of the "savings" in the bill are actually just a cynical political charade.

Posted by: tbass1 | November 7, 2009 11:26 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, bit of meandering in this post. But you touched an important point - time lost. This is more in reference to Senate, but is applicable to Congress in general.

Look back and recall what was that we were all discussing in summer - whether Snowe would come along alone or with another GOP. Till the end White House wanted some GOP votes and Baucus at least produced one such vote. (By far the only bill I like and I support.) What happened then? Reid threw the gauntlet of PO. Why? Because by then a House bill had got CBO score with PO included and that was not bad and willy Schumer ensured that he gets what he wanted. Any hope for any GOP vote was gone by then.

The question is then why did we loose all the precious time in Summer in Baucus committee if it was all to be thrown? If the bills have not changed at all due to all of the 'debates in Congress' why this delay? Whose Politics has been wrong here? Why did Dem Congress behave so irresponsibly and White House became party to that?

I am not arguing about the delay because like any other Liberal Obama supporter I have been desperate for HCR. I am saying this because American Leadership has paid the high price of ignoring resolution of:
- employment issue
- financial reforms.

President Obama, Congressional Leadership and many other supporters - I do not expect them to show any humility here in not wrapping all these 'already decided HCR' bills earlier due to their political incompetence. I would say it is the same arrogance as like Rumsefeld and guys who continued to argue that nothing was wrong in their war strategy and by the time when President Bush realized 'time lost', substantial price was paid.

The issues 'financial reforms' and 'employment programs' are NOT discussed to the level of details as like HCR has been and that is the price. In other words, what this country needed most, those bills are not yet baked in the process by which Ezra says most significant bills are created - outside of the political process in Congress.

People have not got jobs, travesty of their lives have been continued and the core pillar of strength of this country - economic supremacy - has been effectively seeded by loosing whatever chance we might have had.

Posted by: umesh409 | November 8, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

It has the support of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and AARP, AFL-CIO and Families USA, SEIU and the American Medical Association.

With the exception of AMA, that's a range from A to B.

Posted by: Klug | November 8, 2009 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Are the words, statements, of representatives uniformly meaningless? Far from it.

Posted by: HalHorvath | November 8, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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