The Party of No

One of the most striking features of the health care reform was that it was passed over the unanimous opposition of the Republican Party. This has all sorts of implications, not yet fully understood by anyone (certainly not me). To start with, it’s now clear that talk of bipartisanship, distinctions between moderate and hardline Republicans and so on, has ceased to have any meaning. If their failure to stop the health bill works against them, we may see occasional Republican votes for popular legislation that is going to get through in any case. Obama’s Employment Bill got only 6 Rep votes in the House, but passed the Senate 68-29 (or maybe 70-28) in what the NYT correctly called a rare bipartisan vote. At least the reporter on this piece, Carl Hulse, has caught up with reality, unlike the general run of Beltway pundits who still think that Obama should be pursuing bipartisanship.

In many countries, a party-line vote like this (at least on one side) would be nothing surprising. In Australia, for example, crossing the floor even once earns automatic expulsion from the Labor party and guarantees political death on the other side. But the US has never had a really tight party system, largely because, until recently,the Democrats (and before them, the Whigs) were always split on racial issues.

One problem arising from this is that the US system is more vulnerable than most to the kinds of crises that arise when one party is determined to prevent the other from governing. Passing a budget requires a majority in both Houses of Congress, and the signature of the President. If the Republicans win a majority in either House in November, it’s hard to see this happening. A repetition of the 1995 shutdown seems highly likely, and, with the financial system still very fragile, the consequences could be disastrous. The 1995 shutdown didn’t turn out too well for Newt Gingrich, but it doesn’t seem to have pushed him in the direction of moderation, and the current crop of Republicans make Newt look like a RINO.

A couple more thoughts.

The Republicans have become the Party of No in another sense. Having been the party of initiative since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, they are back to their more accustomed role as the party of reaction. The change can probably be dated back to the 2004 election, when Bush failed to privatize Social Security or maybe even in 2003 when electoral pressure pushed him into introducing the Prescription Drug Subsidy (a pork laden monster as you’d expect from Bush, but still an expansion of the welfare state).

The shift is certainly evident when you compare Obama’s first year in office with Clinton’s. Clinton was introducing policies demanded by the Republicans and their response (the Contract with America) was that he wasn’t doing nearly enough. Now, the Republicans have nothing of their own to offer, except more tax cuts (and, I guess, more torture). They are truly the Party of No.

Finally, a partial defense of Ezra Klein, who copped some flak from Glenn Greenwald for his suggestion that the uniformly negative Republican vote spelt an end to special interest votebuying. As Greenwald points out, this is false, and the big lobbies got to write large sections of Obama’s bill.

But, I think, Klein is right in observing that a particular kind of votebuying, what you might call ‘retail’, is on the way out. In a system with disciplined political parties, there’s not much point in buying individual members of Congress. Instead, interest groups have to work at the wholesale level, convincing party and factional leaders that their interests should be looked after. Unlike retail votebuying his is something of a zero-sum game, since whatever helps one party harms the other. Since politics is inevitably about competing interests to a large extent, interest groups are never going to go away. But there’s a case to made that it’s better tohave them work at the wholesale/party level, where the voters can hold the entire party to account.

176 thoughts on “The Party of No

  1. @wilful

    You’rereading the debate two narrowly. Whither US healthcare reform was the same question as whither the US presidency an the shape of congress at one remove. All sides in the US believed this, which is why the Repugs kicked up such a fuss.

    They knew that if Obama failed to deliver, his side would fall into panic and disarray and be able to be picked off in populist campaigns. They would not be able to claim they had delivered anything of substance for their supporters and the claim that the Democrats can’t govern would be raised. The rights and wrongs of the matter were somewhat secondary. Obama could not afford to be seen as losing, and the Repugs had to win to stay in the game.

    This reform is a long way short of adequate, but in a US context it is a substantial step forward. For us outsiders though, that Obama won probably assures him getting a second term and may signal a new and more robust approach to policy. Financial reform is next and of course there are the coming fights over energy and environmental policy. These things matter to the world.

  2. “Obama’s Employment Bill got only 6 Rep votes in the House, but passed the Senate 68-29 (or maybe 70-28) in what the NYT correctly called a rare bipartisan vote.”

    The House is normally more partisan and polarised than the Senate, and has been for some time. That is because many House members represent gerrymandered districts that are safe for either party, and so they just need to pander to their base in order to be re-elected. In the Senate the situation is different. Because Senators represent whole states, and many Senators represent states that are not an ideal fit for their own political views or many in their party, there is a greater need for bipartisanship.

  3. Sorry David, on re-reading perhaps I should be clearer, I was referring to John’s comments about the conflicts in the US between the executive and congress.

    There is a risk that a directly elected Australian president or GG or whatever, may take his status as a popularly elected head of state as a mandate to stonewall the signing of legislation into law.

  4. Making the system compulsory is important so that one can avoid adverse selection problems.

    I don’t see this being a problem in the Medicare HECS scheme I proposed. And of course a state based system can handle it just as readily as a central government system. In terms of monopsony I think you over rate it’s significance. Mostly it is used to drive down the wages of health workers (eg nurses) but longer term it comes back to bite as less workers enter the industry and older workers exit. Over the long term I think a competitive market which recognised the worth of health care workers will deliver a better result than a monopsony that drives down wages for short term cost savings.

  5. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    I don’t see this being a problem in the Medicare HECS scheme I proposed.

    Not if it’s compulsory, no.

    And of course a state based system can handle it just as readily as a central government system.

    A state-based system is a central government system albeit with a smaller constituency and less portability and uniformity of service provision.

    In terms of monopsony I think you over rate its significance.typo corrected

    But you don’t have any basis for saying this. I wonder what US drug companies think of the PBS, for example. Oh wait … they don’t like it because they want the freedom to give customers a better deal … 😉

    Mostly it is used to drive down the wages of health workers (eg nurses) but longer term it comes back to bite as less workers enter the industry and older workers exit.

    Strictly speaking that’s not true. Yes it is true that nurses get paid less, but so do childcare workers. Specialist doctors on the other hand, get paid very handsomely indeed. But this is irrelevant to the point of whether monopsony could drive down the cost of providing services, isn’t it? And in any event, we could, if we wished, resolve pay inequities in a more conventional way. Nurses get to bargain with their employers. Awards are made when there are disputes. These feed into the costs of service providers and the efficient cost of service.

    What we really want is to cut out windfall profits to people at the top of the stakeholder pyramid — suppliers of pharmaceuticals, orthopaedic surgeons, and more — we want to prevent overservicing — which is a real problem in health care delivery. Not only is it expensive but hazardous to patients and often of dubious benefit.

  6. Pr Q said:

    One problem arising from this is that the US system is more vulnerable than most to the kinds of crises that arise when one party is determined to prevent the other from governing. Passing a budget requires a majority in both Houses of Congress, and the signature of the President. If the Republicans win a majority in either House in November, it’s hard to see this happening. A repetition of the 1995 shutdown seems highly likely, and, with the financial system still very fragile, the consequences could be disastrous.

    The prospects for bi-partisanship policies do not appear to be bright. Obama’s health care is, as I predicted in 2008, fairly centrist in the great scheme of things (no public option, no real effort to curb insurance companies).

    Obama’s legislative program, on health, education and environment, is still way more statist than Clinton’s. There is no way that the current crop of REPs will vote for it if they have the chance to vote it down.

    The politics of bi-partisanship are also looking grim. You would have to bet on the REPs winning back some seats in the 2010 mid-term elections, probably regaining control of the Senate. Wikipedia reports that such elections are somewhat like by-elections in AUS, a chance to give the govt a kick in the pants.

    Midterm elections are sometimes regarded as a referendum on the sitting president’s and/or incumbent party’s performance. They usually don’t turn out well for the party of the president; over the past 17 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average 28 seats in the House, and an average 4 seats in the Senate.

    The bum-kicking effect is likely to be exacerbated by Tea Party-animals which is exactly the kind of base-mobilising movement most likely to get out the white vote and get reactionary conservatives into office. And this type is most unlikely to produce the “let wiser heads prevail” advice most needed if financial markets head into another tail-spin.

    Pr Q said:

    Now, the Republicans have nothing of their own to offer, except more tax cuts (and, I guess, more torture). They are truly the Party of No.

    My psephelogical instinct is that the REPs are committing slow-motion political suicide by having no positive program. Their rabble-rousing do nothingism will work in the short-term 2010, but back-fire big-time for them in the long-term 2012+. Look how Clinton bounced back from 1994 in the 1998 mid-terms.

    More generally, the long-term demographics of the US electorate are working against the REPs. My commenting privileges on this blog do not extend to analysing this process but I am sure that others can work it out for themselves.

    My ideological instinct is that the US will gradually embrace more welfare statism for obvious demographic reasons. I predict that Obama will reward his racial base (Africans and Mexicans) by tacking away from the Centre and more to the Centre-Left in 2012, widening and strengthening health care. He will throw a sop to SWPL brigade by putting in place some kind of wishy-washy carbon mitigation scheme.

    Most voters will see that an extension of health care will not usher in the Third Reich or bring the economy to its knees so they will get used to and perhaps even demand more government services.

    One 2008 prediction of mine that hasthus far failed to materialise: I argued that Obama would tend to strip resources from the warfare state and funnel them to the welfare state. This has not gone through the formality of happening, both arms of the state are growing. I dont see how the US treasury will be able to foot all these bills without raising taxes. Maybe the Chinese will stump up.

    I predict that Obama will win convincingly in the 2012 elections, doing better than Bush in 2004.

    All bets are off if we get a repetion of GFC.

  7. I just want to go over my Obama model in to weaken or strenghthen assumptions in the light of evidence of his first couple of years.

    In NOV 2008 predicted Obama would at least try to follow a Centrist bi-partisan politics in his first term, a prediction that has been largely confirmed:

    Obama comes accross to me as a canny centrist populist politician. Pretty much Bill Clinton without the sleaze…

    Obama will have his hands full with reconstruction rather than transformation. The US polity is in a shambles after a decade of REP iniquity and incompetence. Banks ruined, Army shot to pieces, borders leaking like sieves.

    FOr the first term at least, Obama will be more janitor than Messiah.

    My prediction that Obama’s health care policies would be tokenist was less than half-right.

    I would be surprised if the Obama govt in its first term committed itself to more than token moves towards grand ideological committments such as universal healthcare and a green revolution. For one thing Obama has not really run on a Big Target mandate….

    Most likely Obama will dedicate his first term to paying off his ethnological debts (to black Americans) and performing a few ideological stunts (the kind of “stuff that white [liberal] people like”).

    The Obama health care reform bill is pretty moderate but it is a genuine move towards a “grand idelogical committment”. This implies that there Obama has some policy substance to add to his considerable political style. I have adjusted my model of Obama to reduce its “spin” component. The guy is the Real Deal, although only a moderate one.

    So I am going to stick with my prediction that Obama will tilt his policies more to the Centre-Left in 2012+:

    It is more likely that Obama will try and husband his political resources in the first term to build a robust political consensus for more positive change in the second term.

    Its pretty clear that he will have to work on Independents “to build a robust political consensus”. I am not sure how he is travelling with this demographic. They have to be convinced that he is the real deal.

    Obama has no hope of swinging conservatives. In NOV 2008 I correctly predicted something like the rise of Right-wing Tea-Party-animal movement:

    But he will also remember that the US polity has a fairly large mass of (temporarily submerged) Right-wing ballast. CLinton discovered this to his dismay in 1994.

    Clearly though the Tea-Party-animals are not as strong as the Contract-with-America congressman. They have failed to stop healthcare reform. So we know for sure that the US Right is much weaker in 2010 than it was in 2004.

    In NOV 2008 I also predicted that Obama’s steady as she goes Centrism would confront the Right-wing REPS with political oblivion:

    And the Bush Rightists (including fearful WSJ editorialists) will be more or less consigned to the DoH.

    The REPs have done nothing in the past couple of years to inspire confidence.

    They are now unable to mount an effective opposition to Obamaism. They have no a coherent ideology. Its fun to see how rock-ribbed individualist REPs are demanding that Obama keep his hands off their Medicare.

    Nor do they have a convincing leader. Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal?!.

    I conclude that the US polity will default towards a moderate Centre-Left policy position as the US Right largely exhausts itself in futile stunts and demographics work their relentless political logic in the DEMs favour.

  8. Fran,

    Medicare HECS does not need to be mandatory to work. It just needs to be universally available. In the same sence that prior to the Rudd reforms HECS for higher education was universally available but alternate funding options were permitted. In fact under my Medicare HECS model I would pitch for a rather high repayment rate for higher income earners to encourage them to opt out or else to claw back the funds rapidly. And the system would not preclude people paying cash for medical services or using private insurance. I would see it as a payment method that was available to all but mainly used by those with financial constrains or extreme medical expenses. Not a payment system that was mandatory and certainly not an insurance scheme. Mandatory and insurance are the wrong approach, optional and universal are the way to go.

  9. A state-based system is a central government system albeit with a smaller constituency and less portability and uniformity of service provision.

    I think you’re missing the point. A state based approach to socialised medicine honours the US constitution which says the federal government should do next to nothing. Doing it federally further undermines the relevance of fundamental US law and incrementally enables a lawless federal government. If it must be done by the Feds then the proper approach would be to amend the constitution. At least with prohibition the constitution was amended to create the relevant power. Once power is available by ignoring the constitution the shackles on government become dangereously loosened. Not that this initiative is the first to tilt the US in that direction.

    The other point is that state based initiatives are ultimately more accountable.

  10. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    I think you’re missing the point. A state based approach to socialised medicine honours the US constitution which says the federal government should do next to nothing.

    That sentiment is obsolete and recalls days when the states resisted a Navy even though people were being ransomed by Barbary pirates.

    Really, as we have seen since those days, the states are largely a bastion of resistance to progress in the US. Pretty much every small bit of progress has required Federal intervention and every reactionary organises around “states rights”.

  11. Pr Q said:

    But the US has never had a really tight party system, largely because, until recently,the Democrats (and before them, the Whigs) were always split on racial issues.

    The US party system tightened up in the past generation because BOTH parties polarised on issues of class/race. No bi-partisan consensus could have survived the monumental cultural revolutions of the sixties and seventies without substantial re-aliggnment.

    That said, it does considerable injustice to moderate post-war REPs to paint them as monolithically opposed to civil rights. From the fifties through mid-sixties the REPs were actually far more pro-Civil Rights than the DEMs. Wikipedia reports the partisan break down on the final vote:

    Democratic Party: 152-96 (61%-39%)
    Republican Party: 138-34 (80%-20%)

    Betcha didn’t know Nixon also supported de-segregation in 1958 as Vice-President and promoted Civil Rights at least in his first term.

    This raises the interesting question of what happened to US society from 1964 through to 1968 that made the REPs swing so wildly to the Right, at least on cultural issues. They did not so much split on this issue as totally flip. Did aliens abduct their moral conscience? Its a puzzlement, for the life of me I can’t figure it out. [scratches head thoughtfully].

  12. One small step away from the neoliberal model of user pays healthcare and nonpayers non users early death.

    I applaud Obama.

  13. Really, as we have seen since those days, the states are largely a bastion of resistance to progress in the US. Pretty much every small bit of progress has required Federal intervention and every reactionary organises around “states rights”.

    Baloney Fran. California: way out in front on environmental issues, bloated public sector, very progressive education policies. Would be more at home as an Australian State than a US State. Also, flat broke due to very powerful public sector unions (did I mention Californians would feel at home in Oz?).

    Texas: laissez faire, let ‘er rip, doing far better than California economically and in fact on most social metrics too (including education).

    Unlike Australia, you get a pretty good spectrum in the US, precisely because the states have zealously tried to protect their autonomy against a rapacious federal govt.

  14. California would certainly not feel at home in Australia. Australian states are far better credits.

  15. That sentiment is obsolete

    Perhaps according to some. However I’m actually more interested in hearing feedback from you regarding what I said in comment #34.

  16. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    Comparing a discretionary service — tertiary education — with an essential service — health — is not apt. Morever, edcuation serrvices have built in constraints — you have to give up work to undertake study and it costs you time. Health services not so much.

    I strongly suspect that if you allowed open ended loans HECS-style that you would get massive unfunded liability and lose all control of your budget. Unless people imagine that they will be called upon to repay and in a time frame that is meaningful, the temptation simply to use disretionary services whimsically would be strong, especially in the parts of the market comprising most of the population. You’re familiar with the concept of moral hazard I take it?

    In short, the system simply would not be sustainable and there would be massive overservicing.

  17. @libertarian

    California: way out in front on environmental issues, bloated public sector, very progressive education policies.

    Yet they spend more per capita imprisoning people than educating them. Disproportionate numbers of blacks and hispanics are under edcuated and in jail. They have a three-strikes law meaning that even trivial offences can get you 25 years in jail.

    Also, flat broke due to very powerful public sector unions

    No, due to populist messing with the tax base.

    Texas: laissez faire, let ‘er rip

    Oh yes a libertarian paradise

    Executions since 1976: 451 (California 13)
    Executions in 2009: 24 (California 0)

  18. I’m not sure how it would cause more overservicing than the current system which is essentially free to the user. And the government could still maintain a schedule of what amount it is willing to fund for particular services and procedures. As at present any difference in the price would need to be funded out of pocket by the individual or through private insurance. I think the moral hazard of the existing system is substantially higher.

    Education is more of a public good than health care with the possible exception of vacination and the treatment of contageous diseases. As such I think the case for free medical services is actually weaker than the case for free higher education.

  19. [Texas] Executions since 1976: 451 (California 13)

    Ah, so the feds are in front because Texas executes more than them? I reject your statistic and choose my own:

    [Australia] Aboriginal deaths in custody in 2003: 10 (Texas 0)

    Woohoo, Texas is waaaaay better than Australia.

    I love lefties. They’re so f***ing dumb.

  20. @libertarian

    California is flat broke due to the electricity debacle where the opportunity was provided by ‘reforms’ and the denouement courtesy of ‘innovators’ like Enron, and the stupid referendum imposed constraint on raising revenue. Maybe you should blame the looney people who promoted those bright ideas. Those people, there called libertarians.

    So called ‘lefties’ might be none so bright but those who have been making all the running in the silliness stakes since the mid ’70s have been libertarians.

  21. @libertarian

    Libertarian couldn’t think of a pertinent observation and after offering a red herring and missing the point tried:

    I love lefties. They’re so f***ing dumb.

    We’re not so ‘dumb’ we miss what a conservative libertarian (TM) looks like when (s)he has no material. Libertarian’s conxession that (s)he ‘loves’ the stupid is a remarkably candid or careless admission of the conservative libertarian (TM) cultural paradigm.

  22. @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    I think the moral hazard of the existing system is substantially higher.

    Perhaps you do, but you’d be guessing based on nothing at all. The impediments to exercising funded education are considerably higher that in medicine. To get an education service you have to make considerable personal commitments. Not so in the case of your model of health spending. If one is not going to pay back any substantial portion of a loan, and if one’s lifestyle is not affected by it, does it really matter how large the debt is? Is not paying back $100K worse than not paying back $50K?

    I see no mechanism in your system for cost control or even cost prediction.

    the case for free medical services is actually weaker …

    You need to argue this claim with someone who actually proposes doing this. The issue about which service is essential/more important is a different thing entirely.

  23. I predict that Obama will reward his racial base (Africans and Mexicans)…

    you never quit Jack.

    Also, dude, “Africans and Mexicans” is not the preferred nomenclature. “African-Americans and Latinos”, please.

  24. by the way Jack, you’re forgetting the most important element of Obama’s “racial base”: whites.

    There were far more white people who voted for Obama than there were total “Africans and Mexicans” voters combined.

    But I guess for old-skool Jack, “white” isn’t a race, it is the absence of race.
    Race is “colored”.

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