Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Senate Deal: Ben Nelson for Sale, Copenhagen -- Yawn, Bipartisanship Behind the Scenes

A Good Deal for Nebraska, A Bad Day for Principle
As I analyze the Reid "manager's amendment" that contains the deal struck with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) for the all-critical 60th vote to invoke cloture on the Health Care bill, I am astounded. It changes nothing fundamentally relative to the level of spending in the bill (one of Senator Nelson's expressed concerns.) Amazingly, it also changes nothing substantial relative to abortion funding, Nelson's expressed primary concern. In fact, Rep. Bart Stupak, who led the charge in the House to completely prohibit abortion funding, has expressed that the Senate compromise is unacceptable from his perspective.

What is contained in the compromise is a massive giveaway to the state of Nebraska. Nebraska gets better treatment in the bill than any other state, with federal subsidies for insurance coverage above and beyond what the other 49 state receive. This is pretty disgraceful for a guy who claimed to be holding up the bill on principle. Majority Leader Reid, faced with no other path to passage, gave Nelson what he wanted, similar to how he bribed Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to vote for cloture, although this example is a far bigger giveaway.

These compromises are bad policy, but hardly anything new to get things done in Washington. Anyone remember all the pork giveaways to conservative Republicans to get TARP funded? All those Republicans who opposed a $700 billion bill as too large then voted for a $750 billion bill? Nothing new, but still disappointing.

By my count, the Senate now faces 5 votes before Christmas. The first "test vote" at 1 AM Monday morning will be to bring the Health Care bill back to the floor. There will then be a vote to invoke cloture on the Reid amendment, followed by a vote on passage of that amendment, then a vote on cloture for the final bill and a final vote on the bill. If everything works according to Reid's timetable, the 5th and final vote will take place on Christmas eve.

It appears that the Democrats have the votes now to survive these 5 votes. Things will then turn to the House-Senate negotiations early in the New Year to develop a conference report. The likelihood, in my estimation, is that the more conservative aspects of each bill will survive -- the exchanges in the Senate bill instead of the public option in the House bill, the stricter abortion provision in the House bill versus the looser standard in the Senate bill. Liberals will have to swallow hard and cast a vote for the "best they can get" as this is the only viable path that I see towards passage in the new year.

One liberal, former Vermont Governor and Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean is not playing along with the "best we can get" theory, as he has been all over the media railing against the compromise bill. He has some valid criticisms. As I've said before, the cost containment in the bill is virtually non-existant at this point. It does expand coverage, but there is no question that we will back to the table within a few years dealing with an insolvent Medicare system. I wish that there were much better provisions for cost containment: public/private competition, most favored nation prescription drug pricing, tort reform, etc. But, on balance, expanding coverage to many people who don't have it and backstopping those who do is a good thing. And the bill IS funded, unlike the prescription coverage plan of the Bush years. The bill is a long, long way from perfect or even great, but it is, on balance, better than the status quo.

Copenhagen -- Meaningless Deal

I haven't written before about the Copenhagen conference, so I'll share my thoughts briefly. A non-binding deal is meaningless. Kyoto was binding and still nobody followed it. Climate change is not going to be sparked by international diplomacy, it is going to be sparked by standards imposed by dominant economic powers. This would include Cap and Trade in the U.S. and trade policies that discourage exporting nations such as China from continuing to indiscriminately spew carbon. Cap and Trade will be on the top of the docket whenever Congress gets done with Health Care. You will recall, the House has already passed a Cap and Trade bill and the Senate, which looked earlier this year like a dead end, has shown signs of life, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) boldly working across party lines to try to forge a compromise. Clearly, the compromise will be more conservative than the House bill. But it does look like there is at least some chance that something will happen on this front in 2010.

No chance for trade penalties on China for their carbon emissions. Too many T-Bills in the bank account there.

It's Really Been Quite Bi-Partisan...Really!

All the partisan fighting over Health Care reform has once again led the prevailing political wisdom to be that Washington is hopelessly divided on party lines and leaves you with the impression that every bill passes on a party-line vote.

Not so, as it turns out. I've analyzed the 115 laws that President Obama has signed into law and it turns out that we see a surprisingly level of bipartisanship.

First, let me remind you of the measure I use for the bipartisanship of a bill. I take the vote on final passage of the bill in each house of congress and take the absolute value of the percentage of Democrats who vote for it minus the percentage of Republicans who vote for it. The House and Senate are then each weighted 50% in the final ranking. The votes of Independents are ignored as are "Present" votes or absences by members of either party.

To give you an example of how this works, a bill that passes with all Democrats voting for and all Republicans voting against would have an index of 1.000 and be categorized as Completely Partisan. A bill that is approved unanimously would have an index of 0.000 and be categorized as Perfectly Bipartisan. So would a bill that splits both parties evenly, for instance, attracting 51% of the votes of both parties for with 49% of the votes of both parties against. Keep in mind, this is not a measure of the bill's margin of passage, just the extent to which party membership correlated with the vote.

Of the 115 new laws made in the Obama Administration, fully 89 were completely bipartisan, every one of those 89 passing without a single dissenting vote. Now, this paints an overly rosy picture as this includes the naming of 34 federal buildings (giveaway gestures that almost always pass without opposition) and the 4 bills which created commemorative coins or awarded congressional medals (who opposes commemorative coins for the Girl Scouts of America, after all?). The other 51 laws contained provisions that in many cases were important, such as reform the acquisition process for Department of Defense weapons systems to funding the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. They were good laws, but not particularly controversial.

Moving up the scale, I'll list the 26 laws that were not approved without dissent:
Highly Bipartisan Laws (8)

Arnold Palmer Gold Medal -- 0.003
Veterans Health Care Reform and Transparency Act -- 0.003
Extension of Small Business Act Funding -- 0.006
HIV/AIDS Care Expansion Act -- 0.026
Worker, Home Owner and Business Assistance Act -- 0.036
Supplemental Appropriations for Military Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 0.153
Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Act -- 0.203
Financial Fraud Enforcement Act -- 0.205

Mostly Bipartisan Laws (8)

Credit Card Holder Bill of Rights -- 0.273
Public Lands Management Act -- 0.282
Highway Trust Fund Replenishment -- 0.410
Digital TV Transition Delay -- 0.413
Omnibus Appropriations for Fiscal 2009 -- 0.414
Supplemental Appropriations for Military Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 0.452
Fiscal 2010 Appropriations for Department of Energy and Water Development -- 0.463
Tobacco Regulation and Smoking Prevention Act -- 0.485

Somewhat Bipartisan Laws (6)

Fiscal 2010 Appropriations for Department of Homeland Security -- 0.520
Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act -- 0.529
Cash for Clunkers Extension -- 0.625
Fiscal 2010 Appropriations for Department of Agriculture, FDA and Rural Development -- 0.666
Fiscal 2010 Appropriations for Department of Defense Construction -- 0.704
Fiscal 2010 Appropriations for Department of Interior (also contained a continuing resolution) -- 0.727

Partisan Laws (2)

Children's Health Insurance Program Expansion -- 0.771
Fiscal 2010 Legislative Branch Appropriations (also contained a continuing resolution) -- 0.838

Highly Partisan Laws (2)

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- 0.945
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- 0.950

As you can see from the above, only 2 laws were passed essentially with Democratic support only (the stimulus bill and the fair pay act) and only 2 others failed to attracted substantial numbers of Republicans (the SCHIP expansion and the Legislative Branch Appropriations.) The media coverage of Washington this year, centered first on the stimulus and now on Health Care, both bills which are falling heavily along party lines. But, in the background, lots of good bipartisan work is still happening in Washington.

It's good not to lose perspective on these things...the conflict is sexy, but the bipartisan bills usually have a bigger impact.

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