The U.S. Congress is now a parliament; get used to it

For the first time in U.S. history, a huge piece of legislation has passed with only one party’s votes

by Jaime Weinman

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Senate health-care bill, which means (because both houses have passed identical bills) that President Obama can sign it into law.

One thing many people have pointed out is that this is the first time in U.S. history that such a huge piece of legislation has passed with votes from only one party. All the big initiatives of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency, like civil rights and Medicare, passed with votes from both parties. This bill, on the other hand, received not a single Republican vote in either house.

This has been, and will be, cited as evidence that the bill is a bad one. But I don’t think it says much about it one way or the other, because — and this is also frequently pointed out — the two parties in the U.S. are very different from the way they were. Back when Medicare passed, both parties had their liberal and conservative wings. Similarly, the Civil Rights Act was opposed both by segregationist Democrats from the South and conservative Republicans like Barry Goldwater who felt it violated states’ rights. Today, the parties basically don’t have liberal and conservative wings. The Democrats still have something resembling a conservative wing (as witness the fact that a bunch of their members didn’t vote for this bill), and if the Republicans regain the majority, they’ll elect a few members who are to the left of the party on some issues. But it’s clear that one party is the conservative party and the other is a liberal party, and they are expected to vote more or less on party lines. When a member seems like he or she is going to break with the party, he or she usually falls back into line if the leadership requires it, as Bart Stupak did and as moderate Republicans usually do.

What creates a lot of the weirdness in the U.S. system is that it’s one that evolved in an era of lax party discipline, and the rules have never really adjusted to the current quasi-Parliamentary arrangement. The best-known example is the filibuster. It’s something that grew out of the old system where the “nays” and “ayes” didn’t split evenly along party lines, and Senators of both parties might team up to filibuster. Now, with the more ideologically divided parties, it’s as if there’s a Parliamentary system where the majority has no power to pass anything without the minority party’s consent. This may or may not be desirable, but it certainly creates some weird incentives.

The Republicans have done a very good job of adjusting to the new reality. And not only by using the filibuster (which, until Scott Brown was elected, they couldn’t even use without Democratic defections), but by understanding the effect that party discipline has. As Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell explained recently, he and his House counterpart John Boehner realized they could reduce the popularity of the Democrats’ initiatives by denying them any Republican support:  “Republican unity in the House and Senate,” he said, “has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion.” Though it may operate differently in the U.S., it’s still a dynamic that is familiar in Parliamentary systems. The majority wants to pass something. They have the votes. The minority’s job is to unite in opposition, sour the public on the majority’s ideas and convince the public to put them in charge.

On the other side, one reason Nancy Pelosi has emerged as the star of the Democrats is that she understands this new dynamic. She is famously partisan and disdainful of deals with the opposing party, which means that she has the same attitude as her Republican opposite numbers, and is able to get things done in the new system. So after Scott Brown, some of the more “bipartisan” types wanted the Democrats to go for a scaled-down health care bill that might attract Republican support. As this long article explains, Pelosi said no: she would take nothing less than rounding up the votes for a comprehensive bill, and she convinced President Obama to do it her way.

The reason she was right is that there’s very little likelihood that they could ever have passed the smaller bills. The Republicans and Democrats agree on nothing: they have fundamentally different ideas about the role of government, health care, the environment and almost everything else. Both the Republican leadership and base dislike the idea of giving the Democrats bipartisan cover. Anything important that the Democrats want to do this year (in what might be their last year in the majority) they’ll have to do on party lines, and the same may well apply if the Republicans take back the majority. For better or worse, the U.S. is now becoming more of a Parliamentary government like ours. Well, if they’re going to have Canadian-style Socialized Medicine ™ they might as well have Canadian-style government.

Update: Here’s a link to David Frum’s already much-discussed post, where he argues that the Republicans could have avoided a large-scale, difficult-to-repeal bill if they’d been willing to make a deal. On policy substance, he’s probably right; if the Republicans had expressed a willingness to do those small-scale bills, the Democrats would have jumped at it. But I think that, politically, the Republicans would be in worse shape if they’d been willing to do that. They would have given the Democrats cover and elided the distinctions between the parties.

And more importantly, there’s really no common ground the two parties have. One of the preferred health-care solutions of the Republicans and their base is to allow health insurance to be sold across state lines — which in effect would wipe out individual state regulations on health care. Republicans/conservatives believe that health care suffers from too much regulation, while Democrats/liberals believe there’s not enough regulation. As Frum points out, the plan that just passed has its roots in what used to be considered moderate Republican health care ideas, but Republicans have mostly repudiated these ideas (except Mitt Romney, who keeps trying to oppose an Obama plan that is almost identical to his Massachusetts health-care plan) because they involve using the government to regulate health care. It’s hard to find a middle ground there. We’re just talking about two different ways of doing things and of looking at the world.

Finally, here’s what I assume is a preview of the new U.S. hospital system.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W_p9HxMCm0




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The U.S. Congress is now a parliament; get used to it

  1. If there is a long-term shift towards Democratic ascendancy in the future (I can't say towards the left, they aren't left) it will be helped for generations by Democrats being able to say "When we first implemented universal health care, not a single republican voted for it in the Congress or in the Senate. Not a single one."

    • How many elections would the Republicans have to lose (i.e. not gain control of either the House or the Senate) before the brand is abandoned? Three? Four? Four presidential?

    • The flip side is also true, and I think you underestimate the value of being able to brag that not a single one of your members voted for a severely unpopular piece of legislation.

      • Yes, they will all be sorry when the death panels cart off their families.

        • Do you mean the Republican Health Insurance Death Panels will punish those who supported the change?

          • An Obama death panel has already taken away my grandmother…and we're canadian

  2. And never again shall the twain meet, it seems.

  3. "Nancy Pelosi has emerged as the star of the Democrats is that she understands this new dynamic. She is famously partisan and disdainful of deals with the opposing party ….."

    "On policy substance, he's probably right; if the Republicans had expressed a willingness to do those small-scale bills …. "

    Why do you believe Pelosi would have been willing to do 'smale-scale bills' if she is 'famously partisan and disdainfaul' of deals with Republicans?

    David Frum is losing influence every day since he decided to leave National Review and do his own thing to turn Repub party into Dems Light. I stopped taking that Frum article seriously when I read how the American economy was going to be much improved by November even though millions of people are jobless and at least 25% of homeowners have underwater mortgages at the moment.

    At the moment, Tea Party types are significant block of votes and Frum's advice is to cut them lose and court moderate Dems. I am also curious to know what goodies Frum thinks voters will be getting before Nov from health care bill because from what I have read Americans have to pay health taxes for four years before health care provisions start to take effect. Americans have just passed a bill that requires 10 years of tax payments to pay for six years of universal insurance.

    I am far from convinced that Repubs feel pressure here to pass anything – I don't think they are all that worried that people are going to be huge supporters of bill where people get to pay increased taxes for four years for a health care system that has not taken effect yet. I don't think health care debate is over, not by a long shot. Repub Senators still can play games before passing bill to delay or let it die and then how many Repubs are going to win in Nov by promising to gut the health care bill.


    • Why do you believe Pelosi would have been willing to do 'smale-scale bills' if she is 'famously partisan and disdainfaul' of deals with Republicans?

      Because the Speaker often bows to pressure from the rest of his/her party and especially the Senate. Under Pelosi the House has passed things that she herself didn't agree with. All it would have taken would have been for a few Senators to sign on to the "kiddie care" idea and it would have been game over, because the Senate would have been committed to that idea rather than the reconciliation fix.

      Repub Senators still can play games before passing bill to delay or let it die

      Not exactly. Obama's going to sign the bill the House and Senate have passed, making it law (it has to be done this way because they can't amend a nonexistent law). Then the Senate will try to pass the "fixes" to the law, but the reconciliation package is about fixing a law that will already be in effect.

      I am also curious to know what goodies Frum thinks voters will be getting before Nov from health care bill.

      There are a number of them, particularly the ban on discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions, which is very politically tricky to repeal. And because that ban can't be done without the mandates (because without mandates, people would not buy insurance until they were sick, knowing it wouldn't cost them any more, and the system would collapse), it's harder than it might look to repeal them. The "goodies" in the bill are intertwined with the stuff people hate, and repealing the latter means being open to attack ads about wanting to repel the former.

      I'm not saying the Republicans can't or won't do it, though repeal will have to wait until they have a GOP House, Senate and President. But it's not a slam-dunk, particularly since a bill under consideration is always more unpopular than a social program that actually exists.

  4. Watching the debate in the States I suspect the Dems are going to lose big time in the Nov mid term election. When Americans start feeling the costs of the plan they will be up in arms. Revenue is collected b4 the benefits kick in. There are taxes everywhere and the new restrictions on health insurance companies i.e. can't cancel a policy, must insure etc will drive them out of business or cause significantly higher premiums. There is no indication where they are going to get the billions of waste out of medicare. Doctors aren't paid much here and asking them to take on 20-30 million new patients is a receipe for disaster in the healthcare system in the U.S.

    • "When Americans start feeling the costs of the plan they will be up in arms."

      I don't know about that. They don't seem to mind a trillion a year to the military.

      • Ok, so then the military budget has to be cut, and you have hundreds of thousands of vets who will be thrown off their bases and out of work. That will make everyone happy!

        • You could make substantial cuts to the military budget without throwing vets out on the street. You could, for instance, stop buying Cold War era weaponry that no one thinks is useful. You could end the contract with Blackwater in Iraq. Or, simpler still, you could start requiring bids on those Haliburton contracts.

        • Thanks for admitting that military spending really is some kind of "make work" program, even though cutting veterans entitlement programs (which aren't that great to begin with, given how you see so many of them begging in the streets of Anytown, USA) is not what I meant, obviously.

        • There are already over 500,000 homeless veterans in the US, so a few hundred more won't create a stir. The military budget included even a barely acceptable level of funding for veteran's care it would be well over $1 trillion.

    • Dems were already "going to lose big time" in November. It's the nature of the electoral system – the ruling party almost always loses in midterm elections for the same reason the ruling party almost always loses in Canadian by-elections. The question is how large that loss is. Without pass any health care bill, the Dems were looking at losing the House because (a) Republican interest was extremely high and would be bolstered by the "victory over socialism" or however they ultimately portrayed the health care defeat and (b) Democratic interest would be extremely low because of the perception that the Dems were incapable of doing anything, even with humongous majorities. Now, Democratic supporter interest should increase substantially (hey, look, Dems can do something!), while moving on to other topics (esp. financial regulation) should make it much more difficult for the Republicans to keep up the "this isn't our country anymore" rhetoric. My personal feeling is that passing health care will ultimately be responsible for saving the House for the Democrats.

    • There aren't "taxes everywhere". There are two main tax changes: people making over $250,000 will pay more payroll taxes (starting 2013); and health insurance companies will have to pay higher taxes on expensive health insurance plans (starting 2018).

      This will enable subsidies for lower-middle and middle class people to buy insurance through the insurance exchanges. The mandates will give the insurance companies more income, and the subsidies will help people pay for insurance if costs do go up – which they don't need to, as insurance companies make boatloads of money as things stand and would be perfectly solvent without raising costs. And sick people won't be deprived of health insurance. In addition, large employers (>50 employees) who don't provide health care to their employees and are thus freeloading by forcing the public to pay for their employees' treatment in emergency rooms, would be fined if nonexistent or too limited health care plans forced the government to provide subsidized insurance for their employees.

      It could be a lot better, but it doesn't seem like a bad idea on the whole.

  5. Canada's Parliament and the American Congress are very different creatures altogether. But one thing that they have in common is that both systems are losing their capacity for centrism and compromise. In the States, excessive partisanship (as explained in this article) is making the bi-partisan legislator a rare commodity, yet so many historic bills in modern American history have relied on such compromise and collaboration among legislators of different stripes in order to get anything done.
    Bipartisanship is far less common in Canada's political system. Partisanship ruled the day for most of the last century in Canada, but the fact that the leading parties were "brokerage parties" meant that their ability to find consensus within the electorate diminished their need to find it across the aisle, except in rare minority situations.
    Both systems now seem horribly broken. Parliament has always been a partisan place, but never has it been as ideologically partisan as it is now.

    • The big differance in the two systems lies in the division or power. In the U.S. system the President is the head of the Execative branch of goverment in Canada the Prime Minister is supreme with some flunky serving as the Honorary Head namely the governor general. Its the office that is repugnant not necessarly the person feeding at the trough. Any Democrat who voted against the bill has their constitunts to answer too, in Canada the constitunts are not a concern but the P.M. opinion that counts.Is it not interesting that the member who serves as the Conserative Party whip first ran on a platform for the members responsibility to their constitutants. There must have been a change of understanding or what ever.

    • There's no lack of centrism in the US Congress. This bill is as centrist as it is due to Conservative Democrats; plenty of conservative Dems also voted for a lot of Bush's measures. The difference now is that Republicans won't vote for anything the Democrats want, regardless, and will filibuster anything, because they want to 1.) prevent the Democrats from passing anything that might make the public happy with them and 2.) make the Democrats look partisan.

      Often, a lack of successful bipartisanship can be blamed on both parties. Now is not one of those times, in the United States. In Canada, all parties deserve some blame. The best way for things to be made less partisan is if both parties released the chokehold on their MPs and allowed them to vote according to their conscience and the desires of their riding on most bills.

  6. Let me congratulate MacLean's for assigning the examination of this spectacle to the proper journalist. In this case, the television critic.

    • I actually agree, not in the sense that it's spectacle, but in the sense that Weinman is a proper journalist who researches his topics before writing.. generally in depth. I'd be much happier with him covering political stuff as opposed to Potter or Cosh, but I expect he doesn't find it as interesting/worthwhile.

  7. Welcome to the Age of Bipartisanship as promised by Obama.

    What he apparently failed to mention was that he meant "Bipartisan opposition".

    • Welcome to the Age of Bipartisanship as promised by John McCain

      What he apparently failed to mention was that he meant "Bipartisan Democrats" only.

  8. I've never seen such resolve from the conservative right in the US, as right now.

    The clarion call "repeal" is being shouted from the rooftops.

    What's remarkable is that it was the opposition that was bipartisan – with over 30 Dems voting no. A negative bipartisanship that was clearly reflected in every poll.

    As for those leftists celebrating right now: get it in while you can – drink up, enjoy, savour the power, because come November the hangover will be a doosie.

    Blue state NJ fell, Virginia, and even the bluest of blue states Mass. Mass vote day polling was far worse than than it was two months out.

    Very few, if any Dem seats will be safe in November: in fact it will be a political rout of historical proportions.

    • I would like to believe that (just because it would mean incumbents will lose – I don't care for either party), but only 9% of Americans approved of the way Congress conducted itself in the lead up to the 2008 elections and somehow managed to return over 80% of them to Capitol Hill.

    • …You do realize the Dems lost Massachusetts because their candidate was unmitigatedly dreadful, not because of health care reform, don't you?

      Besides that – yes, the Republicans have more control over their caucus. Because they have a smaller and more extreme one. A majority of the House and supermajority of the Senate supported the bill.

  9. As for "just get it done" Obama, well, it seems pretty clear now his soaring rhetoric of bipartisanship, healing old wounds, was the stuff of the slickest of slick tonic hustlers.

    The bloom is definitely off that rose.

  10. "The clarion call "repeal" is being shouted from the rooftops. "

    From your lips to God's ears. I don't what we'll do up here if that circus ends anytime soon.

  11. Jamie:

    Perhaps so ….. but here in Canada we have become more like Republican party each in every day for over 4 years.

  12. greed doesn't want change…

    • Amazing how the split is between the white & black voters !

      The people with the where with all do not want the disenfranchised poor and economically unemployed to have any medical plan at all – Smacks of selfishness & greed ! Where are their Christian ethics ????

      Shame on those that do not want to share or support the poor in ther midst ! If there were no poor people life would be so much easier in the fabled land of Milk & Honey !

      • it's very sad and ironic. this country (USA) wants to change some countries in the middle east, come hell and storm, and is willing at that (with popular consent) to send billions of money and hundreds of lives to the front line. all in the name of security.

        now, their leadership brings that spirit of change in their own backyard, in the name of health care, and these war-freak supporters go berserk. greedy. myopic. shame on them who want to want to see other nations to change yet, they can't believe that they need it too.

        i support this bill to pass and become a law. don't leave the uninsured and the poor behind. share your wealth!

  13. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

  14. The present time us great and we have to wait what is going to happen in the future.

  15. I too agree with David B. In Canada we have become more like Republican party each in every day for over 4 years.

  16. Cockroaches will deny the truth, denigrate the messenger, distort the history and every thing else possible to hide from the light of the truth. Good job walrus and andrew e. but it won't work.

    And, yes, some of us ARE ready to take appropriate actions but we're currently willing to wait for the results of the November election. Killing the communist traitors is our last resort but it is NOT off the table!

    If there's ANY hanky-panky during the November elections, it could very well set off a violent insurrection in America. Make no mistake you communist traitors, the fuse is lit and getting shorter by the day.

    While I would prefer the country not be subject to the death and destruction such would cause, I fear the infiltration and corruption is so deep, there is no other way to restore the Republic.

    Submited by : Montura

  17. One of the preferred health-care solutions of the Republicans and their base is to allow health insurance to be sold across state lines — which in effect would wipe out individual state regulations on health care.

  18. One thing many people have pointed out is that this is the first time in U.S. history that such a huge piece of legislation has passed with votes from only one party. – Valuable point and I very much agree with this.

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