He’s Got This: Healthcare Edition

by Brien Jackson

Does President Obama need to say more about healthcare reform to help it through Congress? A lot of people are saying so lately, but Ezra doesn’t think so:

In 1994, President Bill Clinton exhausted his political capital guiding the development of the legislation. Barack Obama, by contrast, has saved his to push for its passage. Once Finance and HELP and the House Tri-Committee have laid down their markers, then the White House will, and should, get involved. They’ll have to figure out which edges need to be sanded off for political passage and which priorities are too important to sacrifice on the altar of senatorial ego. But there’s no reason to rush that moment. For now, the White House should have as little to do as possible with the various legislative products. Let the committees absorb the blows of the bad weeks. Let the early coalitions present themselves. Let the Republicans show their strategy in the mark-up sessions. Let the CBO score all the different options. Let the legislature familiarize itself with different revenue options. Wait. Wait and wait and wait. Wait until Congress has pushed this as far upfield as it’s able.

Then open up the White House. Then have Obama on TV. Then have Rahm on the phone with legislators. Then take Olympia Snowe for a ride on Marine One. The White House can exert explosive force on a piece of legislation, but it can only do so effectively for a short period of time. That was the mistake Clinton White House made in 1994. By the time their legislation was near reality, administration officials were so deeply involved that they couldn’t add external momentum.

I mostly agree with Ezra’s take on the question. The White House, in general, is traditionally pretty good for whipping votes and twisting the arms of lingering lawmaker, but it’s usually pretty hard for the White House to directly influence the nuts and bolts of a bill, particulary one as big as a fundamental, decades coming, overhaul of healthcare. This is why the Clinton administration’s approach was a fundamental mistake; for better or worse, the vast majority of institutional power in making domestic policy is concentrated in Congress. Even if Obama had followed Clinton’s lead and sent Congress a full bill, ready to be voted on, it would still be going through the same processes as it is right now. There would still be relevant committee hearings, CBO scorings, and amendments. Things would still be handled on Congress’s schedule, and there really wouldn’t be anything the White House could do to change it. By letting Congress take the lead, you eventually get something people can agree on, and that can get to the President’s desk. What that is, exactly, is important, but it’s an important first step. And it’s one I think people overlook more than they should. We’re going to get some kind of healthcare reform this Congress. It’s too fundamental an issue to the Democratic Party, and too much talk has been put into it to not pass anything on the issue. The question is simply how good the bill is going to be. I think the White House should be doing what they can to make sure the bill that gets to Obama’s desk is a good one, but you’re not going to see those kinds of negotiations play out on CNN.