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The party line

Jason Coleman | Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Last Sunday, historic health care legislation passed in the House of Representatives and was sent to President Obama’s desk. As the final votes came in, the tally was a clearly partisan 219-213, without a single Republican voting for the bill. As a personal supporter of health care, I was elated at its imminent passage, but not without some sense of concern with the way it had to be coddled through the Senate and House with partisan reconciliation and party line votes the only viable political conclusion for success. After all, Medicare and Social Security were both passed with at least some bi-partisan support and were much larger pieces of “social engineering” than the current bill represents.

The idea of reconciliation itself is not as troubling to me, as it provides substantive protection on crucial budgetary, deficit and debt issues from the filibuster, a procedure that has seen increased use by both parties over the last 20 years. In the same way that both parties have increased its obstructionist use of the filibuster, both parties have used the reconciliation for their own ends as well. Republicans, especially those decrying reconciliation as the “nuclear option” are especially motivated to play down their own use of reconciliation in passing tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003 that increased both the deficit and debt substantially.

What is concerning, however, is the way in which reconciliation had to be used for measures on a bill which by all means is quite moderate (the Blue-dogs took care of that), includes increases in payments to primary care physicians (a suggestion by Chuck Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa) and, in its final form, looks very similar to the program which Mitt Romney passed in Massachusetts. 

How is it that no serious effort was made early on by the Republican Party to meet half or even a quarter of the way in the debate on reform? How is it that bi-partisanship seemed to die so quickly under the weight of the media and special interests? There are at least three big pieces to this puzzle. First, the mentality of the senate and congress has shifted substantially in the last two decades. Sen. Evan Bayh, the Democrat from Indiana, in his open letter detailing his choice to retire at the end of this current term, spends a great deal of time discussing the newfound lack of congeniality in the Senate and between caucuses. At one time, senators seemed to take themselves much more seriously as men who were working together to make America better through compromise than as men working at odds to keep the other party from destroying our country. With 24-hour media, increased transparency, and the Internet, it is difficult for Congressmen to ever take a break from their next attack, lest they look too friendly with the enemy in front of constituents.

Second, the gerrymandering of districts has created an environment where most Congressmen have little to fear from opposing party challengers. While there are certainly congressmen that have possibly sacrificed their own careers for the sake of passing the bill, this number is probably a minority of either party’s total representatives. Politico only came up with about 20 representatives that were truly going to have to defend their yes votes, and all of them hail from marginally blue districts, or districts that are even historically conservative. How to draw these districts in a politically tenable manner may be a difficult, if not impossible question.

Finally, the importance of state primaries should be reexamined. Originally, they were intended to take the power of candidate selection from back rooms and party bosses. Now, however, they more or less guarantee both political parties a spot in every single election, even districts where a much more vibrant and moderate election could come from two contenders from the same party. Currently, candidates are forced to push to the extremes to win the traditionally hardcore voters from their own party, and then push centrist again to appeal to voters at large. This creates an extreme option from both parties, rather than even one moderate from either party. If a single primary were used in each state to select two candidates for a runoff, representatives would not have to pass party purity tests to make a general election; they would merely need to appeal to their district’s electorate at large.

The unintended consequences of this bill, for good or ill, will not appear for years down the road, but the lesson to be learned immediately is that congress simply does not cooperate in a way that seems viable for long term legislative success, and will not be truly effective as long as it continues to be party extremists from safe districts.


Jason Coleman is a senior accounting major. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.