Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Reactions to the Massachusetts Senate Election

Consider one liberal’s reaction to last night’s Massachusetts Senate Election, and two liberals’ reaction to that or similar reactions. First, here’s Barney Frank:

I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results. If Martha Coakley had won, I believe we could have worked out a reasonable compromise between the House and Senate health care bills. But since Scott Brown has won and the Republicans now have 41 votes in the senate, that approach is no longer appropriate. I am hopeful that some Republican senators will be willing to discuss a revised version of health care reform. Because I do not think that the country would be well served by the health care status quo. But our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened. Going forward, I hope there will be a serious effort to change the senate rule which means that 59 are not enough to pass major legislation, but those are the rules by which the health care bill was considered, and it would be wrong to change them in the middle of this process.


Here’s Josh Marshall’s meta-reaction:

I've always been such a big admirer of Barney Frank, on so many different
levels. So I was genuinely surprised, really shocked to see this statement he put out tonight that is just an embodiment of fecklessness, resignation, defeatism and just plan folly. The gist of his point is that that's it for health care reform. If a few Republican senators will come across the aisle and help maybe it will happen. But if not, that's it. Amazing. Just amazing.

Here’s Matthew Yglesias, echoing Marshall:

The option of responding to this setback with determination exists. There’s no rule preventing the House from passing the Senate health care bill. For that matter, there’s no rule preventing the reconciliation process from being used to implement a carbon tax with the revenue split between rebates, investments in clean energy, and deficit reduction. That’s not going to happen, but the reason it’s not going to happen is that Democratic members of congress don’t want to do
it. They could go down in history as the people who took bold action to solve that problem, but they prefer not to.


Aren’t Marshall and Yglesias missing Frank’s point? When Frank says “our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened” he isn’t making a strategic calculation. He’s upholding a civic norm. He’s saying that, in our capacity as democratic citizens, we have a weighty obligation to do in our part in sustaining fair decision-making procedures. He’s saying that there is a rule against pushing health care reform through now, an ethical rule: one may not manipulate decision-making procedures on which people have come to rely just to secure a partisan objective. Frank thinks breaching that rule is bad citizenship because it tears the fabric of legitimate expectations that sustains democratic government.

Maybe he's wrong. You can argue that no ethical line would be crossed by passing health care reform before Brown is seated, ping-ponging the Senate bill, using reconciliation, etc. But it says something about the present state of liberalism that liberals as thoughtful as Marshall and Yglesias are deaf to the suggestion that there’s a line to cross. In this respect, they’re a lot like the Massachusetts Democrats who changed the rules governing vacant Senate seats when it looked like a Republican governor might get the chance to name John Kerry’s replacement, changed them back to replace the late Ted Kennedy when the governor’s mansion was back safely in Democratic control and lately suggested they might delay certifying Scott Brown’s election until health care reform is passed.

Update:  Much is being made of Frank's "U-Turn."  But if he has changed his mind about the advisability of ping-ponging the Senate bill, he's still adamant about playing by the prevailing decision-making rules.  Ping-ponging is OK, by his lights, "as long as it's being done in a way that's invulnerable to charges that it was jammed through, or the rules were disregarded."

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