Monday, February 22, 2010

Hidden Costs of Reconciliation

Jon Chait explains why, if the House passes the Senate healthcare bill, it’s permissible under Senate rules to use the reconciliation process to change most of the features of Senate bill that are unacceptable to House Democrats. As far as Chait’s concerned, that seals the case for so using reconciliation. His reasoning is laid out in a subsequent post. Giving up on healthcare reform now, Chait argues, is like saying “a homeowner who's hired a contractor to remodel his kitchen, paid out 90% of the sum, and had his old kitchen taken out but the new one not yet installed, should fire the contractor mid-job and just eat the cost and go on without a working kitchen.”

I don’t think that Chait’s succumbing to the “fallacy of sunk costs.” The rationality of doing what it takes to pass healthcare reform at this late date depends on whether the incremental benefits are worth the incremental costs. The sunk costs Democrats have already incurred by pushing reform over the last year are water under the bridge.  I gather that Chait thinks the incremental costs of using reconciliation are inconsiderable when measured against the incremental benefits. Democrats are probably going to fall off a political cliff anyway, so they might as well mitigate the political damage by energizing the Democratic base and secure the legislative achievement of improving the healthcare system for the millions who are currently uninsured. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I don’t disagree with that calculation, but I wonder if Chait's taking account of all the likely costs. Every Senate Democrat who cast a difficult vote for cloture on the original bill in the expectation that it would contain features that won’t survive reconciliation will have been played for a chump. The same is true of every House Democrat (and the one Republican) who voted for a more liberal bill in the expectation that its unattractive features wouldn’t survive the Conference Committee.

There’s always a cost to frustrating the legitimate expectations of political actors by reinterpreting decision-making norms in the middle of the game. For one thing, using reconciliation on healthcare is likely to make the filibuster an even more formidable obstacle to liberal governance in the future. Democratic Senators in red states will probably conclude that they’d better filibuster the next bill that’s a little too liberal for their tastes to avoid having their preferences neutralized in a future reconciliation vote. And that means that Blue Dogs in the House will be even less inclined to follow the Democratic leadership because they know that they can’t count on the conservatism of the Senate to take the edge off liberal legislation. Congressional Democrats are already ineffectual; using reconciliation will make them even feebler.

Maybe those and other costs are worth paying to get some healthcare reform, especially inasmuch as liberal Democrats are unlikely to emerge from midterm with anything like a governing majority. But liberals shouldn’t kid themselves by pretending that using reconciliation isn’t a desperate measure.

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