Senators ‘Holding Health Care Hostage’

reid-snowe-liebermanIn response to the growing refrains from the Left about Joe Lieberman “holding health care hostage,” Steven Taylor observes that, “Either the votes can be mustered or they can’t. It is the way of legislating.”

Or of any close decision-making process, for that matter.

Sandra Day O’Connor used to “hold the Constitution hostage.”   Now, Anthony Kennedy does it.  Their vote technically is no more powerful than any other member of the Supreme Court but, because they are less predictable, they’re the “swing justice” upon whom the outcome depends.

Ditto Lieberman or Olympia Snowe or Ben Nelson or whoever the 60th Senator is that’s needed to pass a given piece of legislation.  Each of them is  just one vote out of a hundred.  But nobody pays much attention to the 90 or 95 Senators whose votes are pretty much assured, only to the last ones being courted.

We see the same phenomenon outside the political arena, most notably in sports.  Outsized credit or blame goes to the kicker who makes or misses the last second field goal, the batter who hits the walk-off home run, or the pitcher who blows the save.  The fact that there were dozens of other plays in the game that were equally important is immaterial because of the illusion created by sequence.  The dropped touchdown pass in the 3rd quarter that forced the team to settle for a field goal or the holding penalty in the 1st quarter that negated a 47 yard play are forgotten, even though they might have made the last-minute play immaterial.

Is it fair that one senator should have more influence on the outcome of the healthcare debate than the president?  Probably not.  But that’s the price of proposing contentious legislation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    To understand just how contentious it is, it should be remembered that the Social Security Act of 1935 passed with a majority in both parties voting for the legislation. The same was true of the bill that enacted Medicare into law thirty years later.




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  2. Dave,

    On the one hand, you have a point. On the other, the partisan and media environments now are so radically different than they were at the time that I question the comparison.




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  3. PD Shaw says:

    Prof. Taylor, I agree that the parties are more polarized, but the bipartisan fig-leaf for important legislation still (a) marginalizes opponents to the legislation and (b) provides political cover for any negative fallout.




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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Contention goes both ways. To say that things are different than they were 40 or 70 years ago, with which I of course agree, is to explain why things are contentious. It doesn’t justify passing sweeping reforms with narrow majorities crafted from narrower constituencies or make it better statecraft.




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  5. PD Shaw says:

    And doesn’t the passage of significant legislation on party-line votes increase partisanship? I think it does, but I might be wrong.




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  6. Contention goes both ways. To say that things are different than they were 40 or 70 years ago, with which I of course agree, is to explain why things are contentious. It doesn’t justify passing sweeping reforms with narrow majorities crafted from narrower constituencies or make it better statecraft.

    Understand: I am not saying what I am saying in support of the bill. As such I do not seek to justify much of anything.

    However, I am not sure that something like the Social Security Act would have passed by as wide a margin as it did had the media environment been then what it is now. As such, I am not sure that such looks back tell us much about what is going on right now.

    And, again, not to argue in favor of the bill, but if the Democrats muster 60 votes in the Senate, that is not winning by a narrow majority. It is a mathematic super-majority and (if achieved) will have been constructed in an institution that heavily empowers the minority in multiple ways.




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  7. just me says:

    And, again, not to argue in favor of the bill, but if the Democrats muster 60 votes in the Senate, that is not winning by a narrow majority. It is a mathematic super-majority and (if achieved) will have been constructed in an institution that heavily empowers the minority in multiple ways.

    This is unlikely on the actual vote, and a vote for cloture does not mean a yea vote on the actual bill. There are some in congress that would vote to end the filibuster but would vote no on the actual bill.




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  8. This is unlikely on the actual vote, and a vote for cloture does not mean a yea vote on the actual bill. There are some in congress that would vote to end the filibuster but would vote no on the actual bill.

    Certainly true. But being able to get over that hurdle is not small matter and would indicate that some bill is likely to make it out of the Congress and likewise if a bill cannot make that hurdle, then there will be no final legislation.




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  9. PD Shaw says:

    good point, just me. I really don’t know what happens when major legislation gets passed along these lines:

    49-8 Democrats
    1-1: Independents
    0-40: Republicans

    There are going to be Democrats campaigning on the premise that the law wasn’t good enough to pass, but that decorum obligated a vote.




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  10. PD Shaw says:

    Also, interesting that the reimportation amendment failed to pass even though a majority of both parties supported it.




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  11. Stevelaudig says:

    The U.S. Senate and its rules are like the Electoral College. They fail when they are most needed to work. Both are fine institutions for the 18th Century when horses were state of the art transportation and hand written letters were state of the art communication. Both are now failed institutions that will work to make the U.S. a failed state.




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  12. hcantrall says:

    I suppose it would depend on which side of an issue you’re on as to whether the system fails or not.




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