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The primacy of process


"Yesterday," Josh Marshall writes, "I did a handful of posts about how Hill Democrats seem much less adept at mixing politics and policy together than their Republican counterparts."

This crystallized something I've been struggling to put into words. We tend to think in terms of politics and policy. Politics is the so-called "outside game." The speeches, the ads, the press releases, the interviews, the grassroots and all the rest of it. "Policy" is, well, policy.

But this neglects an element I've come to think of as at least as important as the other two: Process. This is a serious oversight.

It's process that drives some of the crucial policy decisions. If Democrats had been able to hold their caucus on procedural votes, they could have kept the public option. If they had rejected Max Baucus's Gang of Six, they'd have passed health-care reform three months ago, and there'd be no question of paring the bill back or splitting it up.

Process is also the subject of most media stories, which means it drives public perceptions, and thus the outside game. Obama is rarely asked to respond to substantive policy questions about, say, the precise mix of subsidies. Instead, it's a lot of "would you support reconciliation?" "What's the deadline?" "Have you spoken with the Speaker?" "Do you agree with Olympia Snowe that the process is being rushed?"

In the book “Stealth Democracy” (which I previously blogged on here), John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that voters have very weak policy preferences. Indeed, you can get a lot of people to change their mind on policy by asking them whether, thinking through the potential consequences of that policy, they'd like to change their mind. You can get even more of them to change their mind if you pay them a compliment first.

Which makes sense. People don't know very much about policy. The twist in Hibbing and Theiss-Morse's argument, however, is that people do know quite a bit about process, or feel they do, and in contrast to their weak policy preferences, they have very strong process preferences. The strongest among them is the belief that the people sent to do the people's work shouldn't be working on behalf of special interests, which explains the fury over the Nelson deal. Similarly strong is the aversion to partisan conflict, as most people think that these problems have common-sense solutions, and too much conflict suggests the two parties are deviating from that middle path.

The point is that process is, arguably, as important as politics or policy. But it's not managed with the same ferocious attention as the other two. And that's a mistake, because it poisons everything else. I don't think that Democrats made critical political mistakes in the health-care reform fight, and I think their policy decisions were defensible. But they made a number of terrible process errors, from letting Max Baucus spend three months playing footsie with the Gang of Six to holding their concessions for the end of the process rather than running through them at the beginning.

I should be clear here: I'm not saying Harry Reid made these mistakes. Ben Nelson deserves the blame for dealing at the end rather than the beginning. But he's paying for it now, and so too are his colleagues. What's clear, I think, is that the party as a whole didn't start with a consensus understanding of the importance of a smooth process. They did, conversely, agree on the necessity of passing a bill. So people made all sorts of painful compromises in that direction, but no one ever gave up anything for an easy process. And now we're here.

The moderates and the liberals alike would have been better off if they'd taken their pound of flesh at the beginning and then ushered the bill through smoothly. But none of them want to do that because they like to believe that they’re skilled legislators and they like to believe the process improves the legislation. I see little evidence for either premise, but there's plenty of evidence that the process makes the public hate the legislation.

Photo credit: By Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  February 3, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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I'm not sure it's fair to say that Baucus's three months pursuing Republicans was a mistake. Yes, the Democrats eventually got all 60 of their caucus to vote for the bill, but it didn't have to be that way. I recall early in the health care debate that many were saying that the more conservative Democrats had to have Republican cover (i.e., one or two Republican votes) for them to vote in favor. Well, that didn't happen, but all 60 voted yes anyway. Would they have done so without the painful efforts by Baucus to bring the Republicans on-board, and without the stark demonstration that the Republicans had no interest in participating? Maybe they would have anyway, but it's at least as plausible that the dragged-out negotiations were absolutely necessary to finally get Nelson, Lincoln, Landrieu, etc to sign up for the final bill.

So I'm not sure it's fair to say that the bill could have passed three months earlier.

Posted by: robbins2 | February 3, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

So then, Ezra, do you regret advocating keeping the public option as a bargaining chip until the bitter end rather than using it to smooth the legislative process?

Posted by: moronjim | February 3, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

robbins2, I think Ezra's point was that it became manifestly clear by the time the House Ed/Labor Committee passed their bill in mid-July that Republicans weren't going to cooperate on health care. At that point -- not September or October -- Reid could have threatened Baucus either to pass a bill by August recess, or lose his relevance on health care reform.

I think the House could have accepted either the President's financing proposal to cap itemized deductions or Sen. Baucus's financing proposal to cap the employer exclusion at a much, much lower threshold than the current excise tax has. Then Baucus could have had to agree with the House's provisions on the community rating and the minimum benefits package (including extending them to the large group market and the self-insured) and the individual mandate -- in order to mitigate some of the unfair age, occupational, etc. effects of the tax. That would have expedited the process.

Posted by: moronjim | February 3, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

I think what Ezra is saying is that they should've used the PO as a bargaining chip at the very beginning. Huddle in the caucus to figure out what everyone's willing to live with, and go from there to pick up R support. If it happens, great, you're bipartisan. If not, you still have your 60, and more importantly, you get it over with. i think the negative impact from stories about "rushing" would be minor.

Posted by: etdean1 | February 3, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Remind me again -- what's the reason liberals can't simply come up with realistic, workable policy that people will accept on its face, instead of rationalizing better ways to wheel and deal behind their backs???

It's like that view of back-room deals, where it's okay for politicians to work behind closed doors because you think they're like our parents. Is that really what you voted for, Ezra?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 3, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"The point is that process is, arguably, as important as politics or policy. But it's not managed with the same ferocious attention as the other two."

Bus was it not this the whole point of getting Rahm Emmanuel to White House? Why is it then it is not Rahm's failure then - keeping the focus? You are letting Obama quite free here, but precisely it was he who was expected to force Congress folks to remain on the Hill at Christmas time until the bill was passed. He went to Hawaii and then the bill went to the 'toss'.

Ultimately it is Congressional Dems who are going to die by their own deeds. I mean these are adults who win elections for living and do legislation as a profession. They need to know better when to finish the stuff 'fast and early'. They should not have required President to be after them like asking school children to finish their homework. But watching Obmam speak to Senate Dems, that is what it looks.

In the end, 'dumb guys' (Congressional Dems) get what they deserve - defeat at hustings. May be we will let them go from this misery; things with their cloudy things, they are not able to pull off.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 3, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

The Senate HCR bill is reasonable, realistic, workable, and its individual components are all accepted on their face.

Also, do the teabaggers and such really think that this is the first time legislative compromises have been worked out in closed door negotiations? This is how every single law that has ever been passed in the history of the United States gets negotiated. People are making a big deal of this now?

Posted by: etdean1 | February 3, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

You've hit on the mantra of Judy Schneider, one of the most knowledgeable people on the Hill: To be successful, you have to master the policy, the politics, and the process. So true.

Posted by: texpat | February 3, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

"Remind me again -- what's the reason liberals can't simply come up with realistic, workable policy that people will accept on its face, instead of rationalizing better ways to wheel and deal behind their backs???"

Because Republicans oppose tax cuts -- TAX CUTS -- when Democrats are for them. There is absolutely no policy proposal that could possibly satisfy them, because their resistance is based in politics rather than actual objections over policy.

It's true, the Democrats could have come up with something that was easier to explain to the public-- but if you limit legislation to only things that are simple, popular and easy to explain, you're basically trying to write legislation at a fifth-grade level. An issue as maddeningly complicated as Healthcare requires a certain degree of sophistication to address effectively, and it's going to include some policies that can be taken out of context to seem negative (ono! Death Panels!).

Posted by: adamiani | February 3, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

"The Senate HCR bill is reasonable, realistic, workable, and its individual components are all accepted on their face."

The Senate HCR bill is an accounting gimmick that will cost at least a trillion dollars more to operate for ten years than scored. The doctor fix is not counted in the cost. Medicare savings are double-counted. If you like your current healthcare you can't keep it. It is rationing. Costs will go up. Premiums will go up. Many people will lose their current coverage, and others will end up on Medicaid -- welfare.

Meanwhile, none of the backroom deals are pork. Nebraska doesn't want farm subsidies to sign on. Bill Nelson doesn't want something for Florida's cooperation. In case after case -- including the unions -- endorsements are predicated on being excluded. If this bill's so great, then how come the common thread of all the backroom deals is that "supporters" universally want to get out of one provision of the bill or another?

Answer: Because it's crap.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 3, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

You let Reid off too easily, Ezra. Didn't he have the option of bypassing the Finance Committee? Or he could have instructed Baucus to get a bill passed before the August recess even if it meant a party line vote. Why anybody thought arch-conservatives like Grassley or Enzi were candidates to vote for HCR is a total mystery. The only Republicans worth negotiating with were Snowe and Collins, and even they in retrospect were a waste of time.

Posted by: redwards95 | February 3, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Yes, process is the third leg on the footstool: you can't be stable with only two legs. Included in the process however must be a media plan, a political base mobilization plan, and a major push to use the public to influence the process (as well as the policy and the politics).

Obama and team blew it. So did Reid. It's over. Superbowl for healthcare has been played, and the tea drinking has commenced. It is written in the wind that climate change, banking overhaul, and jobs/jobs/jobs are in the tank as well.

Obama needs Bill Clinton to advise on some breakthroughs in school uniforms and other pressing issues like trade agreements (that the country will hate even more than health insurance 'reform').

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | February 3, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

They understood process quite well. They just understood it 60 different ways and had 60 different process from 60 little Napoleons.

Nelson's actions make perfect sense within the realm of Nelson's little universe. His process was to get as much as possible for himself and that involved holding out for maximal time.

Baucus likewise.

Posted by: pj_camp | February 3, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

I think I don't understand this.

"holding their concessions for the end of the process rather than running through them at the beginning."

I'm not even sure how to phrase my question - but I just don't think I understand what you're saying. To whom were these concessions going to be made? How were we supposed to know that they were being made for "process" rather than for "politics"?

Also, was it all just horse trading? Somehow I had the impression that somewhere in there the congress critters and their staffs were actually getting work done.

Posted by: JaneG | February 3, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Rahm Emanuel: Policy genius.

Posted by: johnwilliamson1 | February 4, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Well, I think that Obama is largely to blame here. He simply refused to guide the process, other than laying down the very general guidelines " I want to pass a health care reform bill and it should cost X."
I think he genuinely believed that people of good will on both sides of the aisle would spontaneously work together to pass HCR with minimal guidance from the White House. He was wrong.
I don't fault him for holding this belief initially. I do fault him for not stepping in forcefully to move things along once it was clear that the "Gang of Six" talks weren't going to work ( say around July 2009). He should also have made clear at the beginning what he was willing to fight for. Public option? Excise Tax? House and Senate Dems asked again and again? "What's Obama's bottom line" and got no answer.
The plain fact is that you get a smoother process if the guy at the top gives marching orders early and intervenes repeatedly to keep things moving along. And the public really likes a smooth process.Congress and Obama apparently underestimated how much the public would hate the sausage making and the slowness, but its clear that they did. Obama would have ruffled a lot of feathers had he intervened more forcefully. But we would have passed HCR last year had he done so, I believe.

Posted by: stonetools | February 4, 2010 3:21 AM | Report abuse

If the democrats had taken an iota of a second to actually include any Republican ideas in the bill, this could have been done easily given their substantial legislative majorities. Instead, there was a sneering certainty of victory which the democrats wore quite prominently and insulated them from any perceived need of bipartisanship.

I also want to note the continuing hypocrisy here. The Democrats never needed 60 votes. If the bill had been remotely popular with the public, they could have dared the Republicans to filibuster. Instead, the best laid plans of mice and men. The democrats began the year with hubris and ended it with indignity, which as any reading of Greek drama will tell you it is how it always ends.

Posted by: NelsonMuntz | February 4, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

whoisjohngault: "The doctor fix is not counted in the cost."

There is a legitimate argument that the "doctor fix" should be dealt with separately from the other issues concerning health care reform.

"It is rationing."

We ration now. We just do it really really badly. People who have preexisting conditions don't get coverage. People who don't get insurance through their employers pay through the nose or don't get coverage. And many people who have "coverage" have coverage that doesn't cover very much. So don't talk about rationing without acknowledging that all systems ration.

"Costs will go up. Premiums will go up."

CBO says out of pocket costs for most people will go down.

"And if you like your current plan, you won't be able to keep it."

Change requires...change on the part of some people. It means doing things differently, and hopefully better. And that's the real problem: a lot of people say they want change but aren't willing to do anything to help make it happen. In which case: what kind of change can we really expect? If you know of a system where everyone can do exactly what they're doing and yet result in change, let us know what it is.

I have not seen any reasonable alternative that does anything significant and which stands any chance of passage. But I'd be glad to see one offered.

Posted by: dasimon | February 4, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

NelsonMuntz: "If the democrats had taken an iota of a second to actually include any Republican ideas in the bill, this could have been done easily given their substantial legislative majorities."

That's simply not true. It despite their "substantial" majority in the Senate, it still takes 60 votes to get anything done. So it only takes one senator in the caucus to cause trouble, and the caucus has a pretty wide spectrum to consider.

As for including Republican ideas, first of all the Senate bill is very centrist. Second, what could Democrats have included that would have gotten a single Republican vote? Republicans seem to be obsessed with tort reform. Now, from what I've read tort reform wouldn't save very much money, but let's say that the Democrats agreed to put it in the bill. Would that have gotten any Republican senator to vote for the bill? (Or Republican House member for that matter?) I don't see it.

Bipartisanship requires some folks on the other side to be bipartisan. But it seems that Republicans are too ideologically constrained to commit to any proposal that really reforms the system as it needs to be reformed. Many of them object to "big government" solutions or regulation when it's precisely that approach that all of our peer nations have used to produce comparable results to ours at far, far lower costs. Why this evidence fails to persuade is a mystery to me. And those that might be inclined to moderate seem to be held hostage to party discipline.

There is simply no political motivation for Republicans to vote for health care reform; they just won't gain from supporting it--unless it's entirely their own bill, but they're not the majority party. That's not how democracy is supposed to work, where the majority has to pass what the minority decides.

"If the bill had been remotely popular with the public, they could have dared the Republicans to filibuster."

A significant portion of public opposition is coming from the left. And that's because the Democrats did compromise so much. And it still didn't get a single Republican vote.

I'm all in favor of bipartisanship. I just question whether it's possible with the scorched-earth policy that the minority seems to have in place.

Posted by: dasimon | February 4, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

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