Ornstein: Health Care Fight Shows Reid’s Skill, Senate’s Dysfunction

Posted December 22, 2009 at 11:19am

Today’s topic, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the United States Senate, the World’s Greatest Dysfunctional Body. I cannot remember a Senate Majority Leader more maligned and disrespected than Harry Reid (D-Nev.), from across the spectrum. The most recent slap at Reid came from one of the most astute progressive commentators, Eugene Robinson, who said Reid has “made a bad situation worse— in the Senate on health reform. But he is only the latest in a long line.

[IMGCAP(1)]It is true that Reid is not good at the role of public spokesman, does not look the part of a dynamic or powerful leader and misspeaks often. It is also true that he is in deep trouble at home in Nevada. But if the Senate, as appears nearly certain, passes its version of health care reform by Christmas, it will go down as one of the great legislative achievements of modern times. Doing so by keeping all 60 members of the Democratic Conference together is nearly miraculous, because that means getting Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on the same page as Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

Doing so while putting together a respectable bill — and this is a respectable bill, one that actually got better during the negotiations — is also noteworthy. The Reid package opens up the exchanges more to competition; creates a national alternative instead of just the polyglot of state plans; creates a plausible medical loss ratio for insurers; builds in every feasible idea that has come from the health policy community to bend the cost curve, many via pilot programs, which, as Atul Gawande has suggested, is the best way to innovate; and bolsters the independent panel that will try to put teeth into Medicare reform.

I would not suggest that these ideas are Reid’s; they came from a variety of Senators of both parties, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on broadening the exchanges, Al Franken (D-Minn.) on the medical loss ratio and Mark Warner (D-Va.) and many freshmen on cost-cutting reforms. But Reid figured out how to use chewing gum, baling wire, a few incentives (OK, bribes) and personal persuasion to build to 60. Getting over the last hurdle on abortion meant threading a very difficult needle, but he did it through indefatigable effort.

Reid has also used his skill as a parliamentarian and his toughness to drive the Senate over the speed bumps and potholes crafted by the minority, holding the Senate to a punishing schedule to accomplish his goal. Historians will never confuse Harry Reid with Lyndon Johnson. But give a masterful effort by an underestimated leader its due.

On another front, I have gotten as many calls from journalists and others this past week about the “flap— between Sens. Al Franken and Joe Lieberman as I have about health reform. The story seemed dramatic — liberal Franken extracting a pound of flesh from liberal nemesis Lieberman by denying him the opportunity to continue speaking on the Senate floor. It made a lot of liberal bloggers and cable hosts ecstatic, a lot of conservative bloggers and cable hosts enraged, a lot of journalists confused. But it was basically a non-story.

As Republicans used every delaying tactic in and out of the book to keep the Senate from acting on health reform, Reid instructed his colleagues who were presiding to enforce the 10-minute speaking limit strictly for all. Franken just happened to be presiding when Lieberman spoke and asked unanimous consent for more time. Franken, on instructions, denied the time. He did so by saying that in his capacity as Senator from Minnesota, he objected — because that is the convention used, since a presiding officer would make parliamentary rulings but not deny unanimous consent.

Franken shrugged his shoulders at Lieberman, basically conveying that he was just doing his duty. Lieberman clearly understood, smiled bemusedly and put his remarks in the written record. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) jumped up to object strenuously, saying he had never seen anything like it in his entire career in the Senate (inadvertently forgetting, no doubt, the time he had done the same thing a few years back to a former Democratic Senator from Minnesota, Mark Dayton.)

It should come as no surprise that this turned into a big deal on cable and in other media. The Senate is deeply divided on ideological and partisan lines. At the same time, few reporters understand Congressional rules; even those who do may have been thrown by the chair reverting to his individual Senator incarnation to make his point. But the flap continues to reverberate in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

It reflects a growing frustration with the Senate, which is dysfunctional even if it passes major health reform. Despite the howls of outrage on the left, the problem is not the filibuster per se. It is apparently beyond the capacity of human nature to focus on the long run; conservatives and Republicans howled when Democrats used filibusters to stop a steamroller during a portion of the Bush presidency, and now liberals and Democrats are taking up that chorus. Don’t be surprised if we see a drumbeat on the left to use the nuclear option.

Turning the Senate into a mini-me version of the House is not a great idea. Filibusters, in my judgment, if reserved for issues of great national moment, fit the framers’ framework. The problem is less that we are having a filibuster applied to health reform, which is an issue of great national moment, than the total breakdown of related norms in the Senate. Filibusters on civil rights issues were not partisan. Filibusters were never routinely applied to everything, or used just to gum up the works. Filibusters on issues where there is wide and broad support and consensus are just plain wrong. But they are now the norm — not used to enable an intense minority to have its say, but employed cynically to slow down the Senate and bollix up its ability to operate at all.

In today’s Senate, the efforts by the minority to coerce its Members to toe a pure party line, combined with absurd tactics like filibustering the defense bill and requiring hundreds of pages to be read, simply to delay the inevitable and discomfit everybody, are uncalled for and wrong. The height of outrageous and mean-spirited behavior came over the weekend, when Republicans insisted that wheelchair-bound, 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who had made clear his intention to vote for cloture, trek into the chamber at 1 in the morning. That was bad enough; consider that shortly before that vote, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), in a breathtaking breach of common decency, said “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight.—

That is what comity in the Senate has come to. Filibusters per se are not the problem; the breakdown in common courtesy and in the regular order are.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.