Cleft stick

The threat to block the reconciliation fix to health care reform was intended to scare Democrats away from the pass-and-fix strategy. That threat has failed. Now do the Republicans want to carry it out, or to stand revealed as a bunch of four-flushers?

Bluffing in politics sometimes works. Being known as a bluffer, however, is an unambiguously bad thing. It makes all of your threats less potent and means that you will sometimes be forced to carry out your sincere threats because – to your mutual disadvantage – whoever you were threatening didn’t believe you.*

Republicans fighting health care reform – that is, all of them – wanted to convince House Democrats that they couldn’t get what they wanted by passing the Senate bill and fixing it via budget reconciliation. “Pass-and-fix” was the only path to getting a bill once the Republicans had a cloture-blocking minority in the Senate. So the Republicans threatened that, if the House Democrats passed HCR and then a reconciliation measure with the fixes in it, the Republicans would tie up the reconciliation bill with Byrd Rule challenges and dilatory amendments. The threat was to leave the Democrats stuck with a law including the Cornhusker Kickback and other bits of sausage, as well as a tougher tax on high-cost health plans than some House Dems and their union backers were willing to swallow, while not closing the “doughnut hole” in Medicare prescription drug coverage.

To make their threat more credible, the Republicans pretended that doing things via budget reconciliation was some sort of Constitutional enormity, equivalent to the “nuclear option” of ending the filibuster by declaring the Senate rules unconstitutional.

It almost worked; Pelosi and Reid had to work hard to convince wavering House Dems that the Senate would deliver. Part of their argument was that the reconciliation measure with the fixes in it would be hard for Republicans to come out against; did they really want to support the Cornhusker Kickback? Adding student loan reform – saving the Treasury and college studentse tens of billions of dollars at the expense of the banks – to the reconciliation mix was designed to make the Republicans’ problem harder and thereby make their threat less credible.

Well, the Senate bill is now law, and the House reconciliation bill is on its way to the Senate. If you’re Mitch McConnell, what do you do? Carrying out the threat is a really unattractive option; among other things, it reinforces the “Party of No” image and the whole issue of Republican obstructionism, and it does so in a context where there’s not enough on the line to seem to justify it. A filibuster to prevent a socialist takeover and the establishment of death panels is one thing; a filibuster-equivalent to help the banks keep their student loan rake-off is something else again.

Looks as if the Republicans have just about decided to offer only token resistance to the reconciliation fix. But here they face the price of their earlier decision to make their threat more credible by inventing a Constitutional issue around reconciliation. If they were sincere about believing that, fighting all the way would be mandatory; if they fold, they’re revealed as not merely four-flushers but as liars.

Pardon me while I go weep for poor Mitch and his cronies.

* In this politics is unlike poker, where a reputation for bluffing means you win more money when you actually have a strong hand. Poker is zero-sum; politics is not.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Cleft stick”

  1. Doesn't seem to me that they've given up the Constitutionality issue, although now its a few Attorney Generals leading the charge.

    BTW, when was the last time Republicans were deterred from doing anything they wanted due to a fear of being exposed as liars and scare mongers? The public has a very short term memory.

  2. Seems to me the proper course of action is to find something new to be outraged about. That is, of course, what they do anyway, and they generally don't get called out on it.

  3. Well, let's face it, if they let Democrats deter them from doing anything by the threat of calling them liars and scare mongers, (Or racists, for that matter.) the only thing they'd be able to get done, is changing their registration to Democratic… The name calling lost it's sting a long while back, Karlos. About the time Republicans figured out it all meant, "Not doing what Democrats want".

  4. In this politics is unlike poker, where a reputation for bluffing means you win more money when you actually have a strong hand.

    Also, in poker, you have opponents who consider it in their own best interests to obtain relevant and accurate information about you. They will, in all likelihood, adjust their conception of you as a bluffer as soon as you cashed in on a few of those hands. In GOP politics, there is an incentive not to adjust your conceptions, because if you do, you will get voted out right quick and replaced with someone who will better cater to his constituents' pre-conceived, unwavering worldview.

  5. Brett, you're completely right. Being labeled a "socialist" for trying to do the right thing has really lost its sting.

  6. Neither side's epithets have much sting for the other, and rightly so. It's not as though the other side is anybody you really want the approval of, and even if the attacks have some merit, they're usually overblown. Obama isn't a full blown socialist, though he's a lot higher on the socialist scale than Milton Friedman. It's silly calling somebody a 'racist' because they oppose racial preferences, and insist on equal treatment under the law.

    Most of these epithets boil down to, "How dare you not agree with me on everything!"

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