By any legislative means necessary…

There’s been a lot of talk about splitting the federal health reform bill. The New York Times devoted a lengthy editorial to the subject on Sunday:

If the Democrats want to enact health care reform this year, they appear to have little choice but to adopt a high-risk, go-it-alone, majority-rules strategy….

Superficially seductive calls to scale down the effort until the recession ends or to take time for further deliberations should be ignored. There has been more than enough debate and the recession will almost certainly be over before the major features of reform kick in several years from now. Those who fear that a trillion-dollar reform will add to the nation’s deficit burden should remember that these changes are intended to be deficit-neutral over the next decade.

Delay would be foolish politically. The Democrats have substantial majorities in the House and the Senate this year. Next year, as the midterm elections approach, it will be even harder for legislators to take controversial stands. After the elections, if history is any guide, the Democratic majorities could be smaller….

Mr. Obama should know from sad experience the pitfalls of seeking bipartisan cooperation from a Republican Party that has sloughed off most of its moderates and is dominated by its right wing…

The Democrats are thus well advised to start preparing to use an arcane parliamentary tactic known as “budget reconciliation” that would let them sidestep a Republican filibuster and approve reform proposals by a simple majority.


For those of us in California, this seems like deja vu.

As I wrote in The New Republic’s The Treatment this weekend, health reform advocates here in California, as well as in those in Massachusetts, also had to find a way around the political obstacles of supermajority legislative requirements and Republican obstructionism:

Congressional leaders may, according to various reports, split reform into two bills. One would go through the reconciliation process, which is reserved for budget-related items and in which a simple majority can pass legislation, without threat of a filibuster. The rest of the package would go through the standard process, in which legislation effectively needs a supermajority of 60 votes, since that’s what it takes to break a filibuster.

It may sound unusual, but such a strategy has been tried before in similar circumstances: Both California and Massachusetts leaders had to resort to similar parliamentary gambits in their health reform discussions, in both cases to overcome intractable Republican opposition to core portions of their agenda.

California is the only state in the country that has the uniquely high requirement that in order to pass a budget or taxes, you need a two-thirds supermajority of the legislature. The Republican minority in the legislature thus have the power to block anything budget-related (which many analysts appropriately blame for our current fiscal woes). Governor Schwarzenegger wanted support from fellow Republicans, but after waiting into September and getting nowhere (sound familiar?), he and Democratic Assembly Speaker Nunez finally devised a way around the obstruction from Republicans. They split the bill in two, with the intent to pass one part by majority-vote in the legislature, but have the second part with the budget-related financing items bypass the legislature altogether and go on the ballot. Unfortunately, health reformers ran out of time to make a deal in the legislature while also meeting the signature-collecting deadlines to make the ballot for the November 2008 election.


What I take away from this is that in order to something of the magnitude of health reform, you need to put all options on the table: splitting the bill in two, reconciliation, and going it alone
when the other party decides it’s in their best interests to oppose anything at all. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he hopes to do health reform “by any legislative means necessary.

That’s good to hear. Americans will judge this President and this Congress by what happens to their health care: not by the mischaracterizations of the health reform proposal which will never come to pass because they are not true, and not by the process by which a plan passes. The judgement will be if they continue to feel insecure about losing their health coverage due to the lack of action, or if consumers see the benefit of health reform, and see that meaningful and positive change is possible.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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