TWO UPDATES, SEE BELOW:
A common refrain I keep hearing for why Wyden-Bennett would have no chance of succeeding if it ever came to a vote is that even though it has bi-partisan co-sponsorship, the Republicans co-sponsoring it are merely using their co-sponsorship as political cover since they know it has no chance of actually passing. Were Wyden-Bennett to actually come to a vote, they argue, not only would no more Republicans vote for it than have already signed on as co-sponsors, but most of the Republican co-sponsors would actively drop off. As such, goes the refrain, advocacy of Wyden-Bennett is the surest way to guarantee that there will be no health care reform at all.
I have two problems with this line of thinking, which largely seems to stem from this Ezra Klein post. When I first read that post awhile back, I thought it made sense, although I thought Klein was ignoring that any remaining Republican support whatsoever would significantly undercut the power of the Blue Dogs to water down Wyden-Bennett in the way they have watered-down HR 3200.
My first problem with this line of argumentation is its implicit assumption that HR3200, in whatever form it finally passes, would at least be an improvement over the status quo from the point of view of anyone who actually cares about health care reform. However, as I’ve pointed out before, there are plenty of reasons to believe that it would not be enough of an improvement over the status quo (and would in fact double-down on the single worst element of our health care system) to justify the huge expenses associated with it, particularly at a time when our national debt is already disturbingly high and accelerating by the minute.
My second problem is that this line of argumentation goes beyond mere cynicism (which I fully support) to the point of automatically assuming the worst of one’s political enemies regardless of whether there is evidence for that assumption.
Indeed, in re-reading that Ezra Klein column, I am struck by how little evidence he has to back his claim up. The evidence amounts to noting that Senator Bob Corker was a co-sponsor in 2007-2008, but has not signed on in 2009.* That’s not at all unusual, though – politicians drop off as co-sponsors from session to session all the time, but will still vote for it if it comes to an actual vote. A good comparison would be the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, which was the first piece of legislation I could think of that had failed and then passed in consecutive sessions. In that case, Fritz Hollings and Bob Torricelli co-sponsored it in 1998-99, dropped off as co-sponsors in 2000-2001, yet still voted for it in 2001 (I’d also note that John Chafee co-sponsored it in 1998-99 before he died, and his son Lincoln did not co-sponsor it in 2000-2001, yet still voted for it). Moreover, Klein fails to note that Lindsay Graham was not a co-sponsor previously but now is one.
The point is that Klein reads far too much into one Senator dropping off as a co-sponsor from one Congress to the next and fails to provide support for the assertion that Republican support would not only fail to increase if Wyden-Bennett came to a vote, it would actually decrease – we are asked to take on faith that since Klein has followed this issue for years, he knows what is actually in the heads of the Republican co-sponsors of the legislation. Yet he doesn’t even imply that he has a source that is inside Congress that confirms this suspicion, much less a source from inside one of the Republicans’ offices.
The other thing that’s interesting about Wyden-Bennett, and which Klein ignores, is that it doesn’t appear to be merely “bi-partisan.” Its co-sponsors have ranged from die-hard conservatives like Trent Lott (who didn’t even have an electoral reason to support it since he was resigning) and Mike Crapo to centrists like Grassley, Graham, Specter, and Lieberman to die-hard liberals like Wyden and Maria Cantwell. This type of support is usually indicative of a bill that is ideologically palatable to all sides rather than a bill that is able to achieve bipartisan support merely by bribing a few centrists with some bacon or window-dressing.
Moreover, it’s worth taking a look at the Heritage Foundation’s review (written in March 2008, when health care was just beginning to return to the center of our national debate) of Wyden-Bennett, which could only be described as mild criticism combined with subtle praise. Although the review is clearly critical of the increased regulation of the individual market that it would implement, and thus calls it inferior to alternative legislation from Tom Coburn that would amount to the conservative ideal, it’s pretty clear that Heritage’s position was that it would represent an improvement over the status quo, stating that:
By introducing the Healthy Americans Act (S. 334), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and his chief co-sponsor, Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT), have courageously challenged the status quo on the federal tax treatment of health insurance and public health programs for the poor. The bill correctly targets the inequitable tax treatment of health care that favors coverage obtained through the place of work. It also recognizes the weakness of the existing public health programs, Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Indeed, at least one Heritgage Foundation fellow was recently heard on NPR agreeing with Paul Krugman that Wyden-Bennett was the best approach to health care reform, and that health care reform is needed.
That’s not to say that I think Wyden-Bennett would definitely pass if it came to a vote. It would run into fierce opposition from Big Labor that would utterly destroy the support of Midwestern Democrats (although maybe not, since Debbie Stabenow of Michigan has twice signed on as a co-sponsor) and quite possibly the Dem leadership in Congress, which is also heavily dependent on those interest groups. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see the GOP leadership backing it at this point, even if a good chunk of the rank and file did, since they don’t want to hand the Democrats a victory. However, the assumption that Wyden-Bennett would clearly fail to pass and would indeed fail miserably without the support of almost any Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats is an assumption for which the evidence is sorely lacking.
In fact, given that Wyden-Bennett has been around for years, and things like the “public option” are very recent additions to the health care debate, I suspect that the chief reason why Wyden-Bennett has never been pushed by the Dem leadership is precisely because it is unpalatable to Big Labor.
I’m usually one of the more cynical people when it comes to politicians, but in this case the evidence that Republicans would turn against Wyden-Bennett if it came to a vote is pretty weak. It appears to me that liberals who assume that Republican support for Wyden-Bennett would disappear were it actually pushed are committing the cardinal sin of underestimating their opponents, attributing the worst possible motives to all of those opponents despite clear evidence to the contrary and without any supporting evidence.
UPDATE: Reading the comments to both this post and E.D’s earlier post, I see that there is this temptation to treat both all conservatives and all Republicans as monolithic. Beyond the fact that I always tend to find this logic frustrating, especially after complaining about conservatives doing this to liberals for the last 8 years, this temptation reduces conservative and GOP incentives down to exactly one: the desire to prevent the Democrats from taking credit for anything. This is an important desire for the GOP leadership, but it would be unwise to give it primacy to the GOP rank and file. Maybe it will help to take a look at the political calculus each GOP senator and congressman has to go through under the competing bills.
HR3200, or anything else that the Dems are trying to push through purely on the strength of their existing majorities:
Reasons to support:
- The mood in “swing” districts makes support for any kind of reform popular
Reasons to oppose:
- Ideologically unpalatable in every way to principled conservatives
- Extremely unpopular with the GOP base
- Would allow the Democrats to take credit for a potentially popular “reform”
- Imposes significant costs on key GOP constituencies outside of the populist base, particularly their donor base
This is already going to weigh heavily in favor of vehemently opposing the legislation in most cases, but the reasons to support something akin to HR3200 are even more undermined by the fact that increasingly few Republican pols are in “swing” districts or states. Even amongst those in such districts or states, the conservative base in those states is usually strong enough (the exception apparently being the State of Maine) that a politician who supported HR3200 or something like it would be risking a tough primary challenge if he signed on. In other words, for all but a handful of GOP pols, HR3200 is structured in such a way that it’s going to be a complete non-starter.
But let’s look at what the calculus would look like for Wyden-Bennett:
Reasons to support:
- Ideologically palatable, if imperfect, to principled conservatives
- Would arouse no particular ideological passions from the conservative base
- The mood in “swing” districts supports almost any type of health care reform whatsoever
- Politically weakens a key Democrat constituency
- Financially benefits key GOP small business donors by cutting the employer-insurance ties.
Reasons to oppose:
- Would allow Democrats to claim a legislative accomplishment on an important issue
- Has some provisions that are ideologically inconsistent with conservatism
Now, preventing the Dems from claiming a legislative accomplishment is a huge thing for the GOP’s national leadership. Indeed, by itself, it’s probably enough to keep the GOP leadership from giving it their blessing. But the GOP rank and file is not the GOP leadership.The small number of GOP legislators in swing districts and states would be able to promote their support of health care reform without risking a primary challenge. GOP pols who are truly conservative ideologically but are pragmatic enough not to make the perfect the enemy of the good would likewise be able to support it since it does the one thing that conservatives view as absolutely essential to health care reform. GOP pols on the fence might also get swayed by the support from donors. These groups might not add up to a majority of the GOP members of Congress, but they would not be insignificant either. Would it be enough to overcome the influence of Big Labor on Dem pols? I don’t know, but it would at least be close enough that it’s not out of the question.
*Although Klein doesn’t mention it, I should acknowledge that Sens. Grassley and Gregg have also dropped off as co-sponsors, but both of them are Grassley is a centrist who may well vote for something resembling even HR3200 in the end anyhow is dedicated to the Baucus working group, so there is even less reason to assume that theyhe wouldn’t support Wyden-Bennett if it ultimately came to a vote. [UPDATE II]: Additionally, it’s worth noting that all of the GOP co-sponsors, including Judd Gregg, signed their names to yesterday’s Washington Post commentary supporting the bill. That’s a pretty public commitment to supporting it should it ever see the Senate floor. Although Klein continues to insist, without any evidence, that “most conservatives reject the bill” (how many conservatives even know what it is?), this has seemingly led him to drop his insistence that the GOP co-sponsors have no intention of supporting it for the long haul, saying “this is a group that believes in the value of good compromises.”