Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Healthcare Bipartisanship


Ruth Marcus offers a peculiar editorial today, urging the President to consider two "bipartisan" healthcare proposals. She defines "bipartisan" as "Supported by at least two members of Congress, at least one of whom is from each major party."

Now, don't get me wrong, if there's a good bipartisan solution it should be considered by the rest of Congress and the President. But by any sensible measure of bipartisanship, a bipartisan solution would be one that is likely to pass with the support of both parties. And there should be appreciable support. If you can't get a majority, you can still reasonably paint as bipartisan a solution that passes with only 30 - 40% support in the minority party. But it's a bit of a stretch when you're talking about a handful of defectors, even before considering that minority party members of a "Gang of 14" or equivalent are often motivated by factors quite apart from the best interest of their party and its supporters.

When you're talking about a proposal that seems to have the support of only one member of the opposition party, and perhaps no greater amount of support in the majority party? How is that bipartisan in any meaningful sense of the word?

Marcus also provides an odd explanation of why bipartisanship is necessary:
You may dispute the entire premise of this column - that bipartisanship is essential to this enterprise - and argue that Democrats, with firm control of both houses, should get everything they want.

My answer is that it's not so firm. The current standoff with Blue Dog Democrats suggests the need for some compromise, and the 60-vote Senate Democratic majority is far from monolithic.
It's hard to see the logic for the holes. First we have the straw man - if you don't think that bipartisan is essential to healthcare reform, you must want the Democrats to act unilaterally and get everything that they want. Nonsense. The majority party should not have to weaken healthcare reform, or any other reform, in the interest of drawing in the single Republican vote that would make people like Marcus sigh, "Ahhh... bipartisanship...." The goal should be putting together the best possible package that can pass.

Beyond that, if Ruth Marcus put Chuck Grassley and Robert Bennett, the two Republicans she identifies into a room with the instruction, "Don't come out until the two of you agree on a single healthcare reform bill," is there any reason to believe that they would come to agreement? Further, why does Marcus believe bipartisanship must come at a bill's inception? If the participation of one Republican is sufficient to render a bill "bipartisan", why wouldn't a Democratic reform bill be sufficiently "bipartisan" if at least one Republican supports the end product? And what if the principal goal of the Republican Party is that expressed by some of its members - to defeat healthcare reform in order to damage Obama's Presidency? If the goal of the minority party is to tear the wheels off of the cart, it makes little sense to ask them for design tips.

Further, while political parties can at times be disciplined and vote or act as blocs, it's perfectly normal for a political party in this country to include politicians with different views and ideas. Heck, put any two people in a room, no matter how closely ideologically aligned, and you're going to find points of disagreement. Does Marcus truly find it surprising that fissures and factions form when you bring together 256 politicians and tell them to come up with a major overhaul of the multi-trillion dollar healthcare system? That's inevitable, even before you consider possible external motivators (industry ties, campaign contributions, etc.).

Now if Marcus were arguing that the Democrats could overcome opposition to a perfectly reasonable healthcare reform bill, coming from a tiny faction of Blue Dogs, by bringing in enough Republicans to pass the bill - whether or not the views of those Republicans was representative of their party - that would be what the media used to applaud as "bipartisanship" when Bush was President. For some reason, Marcus no longer deems that sufficient. Why not?

The gist of Marcus's argument appears to be that bipartisan solutions are always better and thus, even if a solution must be weakened or broken in order to get bipartisan support, that support should be obtained. I wonder if she would propose that the National Council of Churches resolve its theological disputes by granting veto power to Richard Dawkins.

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