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What a functioning 60 vote Senate might look like

January 22, 2010

This post suggests an interesting division of labor in our legislative branch:

Health care reform advocates are concerned that passing a scaled-back version of reform legislation — an option being considered by President Obama and Democratic Party leaders — could end up playing into the hands of Republican electoral politics. […]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “will have his whole caucus vote for it and make it a political win for the Republicans,” one well-connected Democratic health care strategist said. “They’ll say, ‘This was the Republican plan from the beginning. We’re glad the Democrats joined us.’ And take all the credit for passing reform.”

Lo and behold, on Thursday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that the Republican Party do just that, arguing that it would be ‘clever’ for the GOP to pass non-controversial reform measures with ‘huge bipartisan majorities.’ Alternately, some Democrats might welcome such a move. “Hell yeah,” a Democratic congressional aide said. “We would have created a bi-partisan bill. We would have shown leadership. And we’d get credit for that.”

If this were to happen, basically the majority party would have set the agenda (“Let’s reform health care”) and then the minority party would decide how to do it. This is still a minor win for the majority party, because a conservative health care bill is presumably preferable to a progressive tax cut or a pared down handout to the defense industry. If the Senate consistently functioned like this, the progressive agenda would be executed conservatively, while the conservative agenda would be executed progressively.

Yet, a Republican-controlled Senate never would function like the above. I am fairly confident that when the GOP next controls the legislature, the budget reconciliation process is going to return with a vengeance. It seems to me that the asymmetry in the power of the political parties is a result of the conservative noise machine. The noise machine successfully casts Democratic supermajorities trying to pass legislation seem like they are violating the will of the people, while it casts Republican majorities ramming legislation through Congress as proactive heroes. Similarly, the noise machine inspires fear in moderate politicians of both parties, moving them all to the right.

And I also have my doubts that a large section of the GOP will actually vote for any kind of health care bill. At this point, health care reform has been so demagogued that voting Aye on any bill could result in a far-right revolt. The most likely scenario seems to me to be Brown, Snowe, and Collins joining the Dems to end the filibuster and allow voting on a very minor piece of health care reform. It would be a victory… a very, very, minor one.

So in conclusion: while a 60-vote Senate could function quite well, I don’t think it ever will.

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PS – Isn’t this why median voter models are nonsense? Right now the decisive vote in the Senate is the 60th most liberal Senator, Scott Brown. So wouldn’t the median voter model predict that all bills passed through the Senate would be those that would satisfy the median voter in Massachusetts? But it goes without saying that the median Bay Stater is going to be far to the left of any bills Scott Brown will vote for. The median voter model fails here because (like the rational choice models that inspired it!) it fails to account for institutions, like the Republican Party and the conservative noise machine, both of which incentivize Brown toward party unity.

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