Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is 'deem-and-pass' an irredeemable boondoggle?

Getting health care reform through the House via "deem-and-pass," a parliamentary move whereby the House "deems" the Senate bill passed as it votes in favor of a package of fixes via reconciliation, may indeed be a foolish strategy, as HCR stalwarts Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Bernstein and Kevin Drum are all lamenting. Drum nicely captures the consensus:
Like it or not, process has become a big issue as healthcare has dragged along into its second year, and the public really does seem to have grown weary of endless procedural wankery. What's more, there's no benefit. Any Democrat who thinks that Republican attacks this fall are going to be blunted even a smidge because, technically, they voted for the package of fixes, not the main bill, is living in fantasy land.

In fact, it will probably just make things worse. They still will have voted for the Senate bill, but it'll look like they're trying to hide the fact. That's the worst possible tack they can take. For the fence sitters, their best hope is to pass the bill — through gritted teeth if they must — and then come out of the House chamber smiling broadly and proclaiming it a historic advance for ordinary Americans of all incomes etc. etc.

Republicans of course are screaming worse than bloody murder - they're screaming treason -- never mind that they used the procedure 36 times in 2005-2006 (see Chait). Michelle Bachmann says that a law thus passed does not have to be followed. The WSJ thunders that it's unconstitutional.  If nothing else, avoiding this hysteria would seem to be a good reason to shelve the tactic. 

But the symbolic logic of the procedure is not quite as craven as its critics aver.   The message need not be decoded as, "I voted for the Senate bill even though I was ashamed to." It's "I voted for the Senate bill only as amended to meet my demands," e.g. removing single-state carve-outs and delaying/weakening the excise tax on expensive plans.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen put this well:
He defended the deem-and-pass strategy as a way "to make it clear we're amending the Senate bill." Without that approach, Van Hollen warned, "people are going to try to create the impression that the Senate bill is the final product, and it's not."
In short, deem-and-pass is seen by some House members as a way to brand the bill -- to simulate the kind of merged bill that was nearly completed before the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority in the Massachusetts election. It has the added benefit of getting HCR passed in the House via one vote instead of two. With a razor-thin margin, HCR supporters in the House may feel that removing one more chance for a cup-to-lip slip is worth something too.

Part of the problem too is in the way Pelosi presented the option. She made it sound like an evasion:
"[M]embers are more comfortable with a [self-executing rule]," Pelosi told a handful of health care reporters and bloggers yesterday morning. "It's more insider and process oriented than most people want to know, but I like it because people don't have to vote on the Senate bill."
That's not as evasive as it sounds. I think the point is to vote for "our own" bill and in the process transform the Senate bill -- into one that combines input from both chambers, which is how the process is supposed to work. "Deem and pass" also puts a kind of rhetorical pressure on the Senate to complete the loop by passing the reconciliation patch unchanged. But the message should be, 'we want to blend the two bills with our vote,' not 'we want to avoid voting for the Senate bill.'

If I were to continue to play devil's advocate, I might suggest that giving the Republicans something procedural to scream about diverts them from lying about the bill's content and likely effects.  But enough -- I agree that injecting one more bit of procedural arcana that can be cast as a form of trickery only turns up the heat on wavering Democrats. If "deem and pass" had been presented shrewdly from the outset, though, as one vote for two merged bills, that heat may have been more easily diverted.

UPDATE 3/17: Jonathan Chait seems to suggest this morning that the furious focus on bogus procedural issues may ultimately backfire on Republicans (though it is also in some senses working).  The proof of the pudding will be in the House vote, I guess. I don't think "deem and pass" will hunt for Republicans as an attack line in the fall if the Democrats manage to get the bill through.

1 comment:

  1. I think few will bother (or do bother) about the finer points of parliamentary procedure. Pass the bloody bill and take it from there.