Pocket votes and minimum winning coalitions

Not every Democrat who voted “no” on health reform deserves a primary challenger, and the leadership deserves the benefit of the doubt until the game is over.

Had a chance conversation today with a staffer for a Blue Dog Congressman from a fairly Red district who voted against the health reform bill.  The Member is surprised by how much static he’s getting from activists on the issue.  Yes, he had a pass from Pelosi, who knew she didn’t need his vote.  And yes, he’s certain to vote for final passage of the Conference report.

This seems like excellent news; given the district involved, if this Member thinks he can vote for final passage, then we can infer that Pelosi has plenty of spare votes in her pocket in case either Choicers or Lifers defect over whatever happens to Stupak.

I’m glad the Member is getting activist pushback.   But pushback is one thing; threatening to primary people in marginal seats is something else.  The answer to the question, “Why should I bother to help out a Congressman who voted wrong on health care?” is “He’ll probably vote right when his vote is needed.” 

When I was a teenager reading the Congressional Record every day (yes, I was that kind of political junkie) I noticed that liberal amendments either passed comfortably or lost by one or two votes.  It wasn’t until later that I figured out that the barons of the Republican/Dixiecrat Conservative Coalition didn’t make their tame moderates cast any more reactionary votes than they needed.  If they were going to lose, they were willing to lose big; if they were going to win, they did so with the minimum number of votes. 

Pelosi and her whips (and the White House) did this one scientifically; they built in a margin of precisely one Democratic vote.   That is, any one Democrat could have defected at the last minute without bringing the bill down.  (Note that Cao, the sole GOP vote for the bill, came in only after there were already 218 “Yeses” on the board.)  There was no reason for them to force Members in marginal seats who thought they needed to throw their voters or their donors a meaningless “No” vote to walk the plank. A law isn’t any less effective because it passes by a narrow majority.

I think we’re going to get a health bill, and a jobs bill, and a financial-regulation bill, though in none of the cases bills as radical as I’d like to see.  (And we’re also going to get repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and a bill for federal benefits for same-sex domestic partners; repeal of DOMA may wait a year.)  If I’m wrong, that will be the time to grouse about how feckless Obama and Pelosi and Reid are.  Right now, I think they deserve both support in getting the work done and the benefit of the doubt about both their principles and their competence.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Pocket votes and minimum winning coalitions”

  1. First, I would be thrilled to get health care, financial regulations, job & DADT repeal from this Congress. Now, I am gonna assume you left of Cap & Trade cause you feel it's dead for right now. Is there any hope to pass it? Can the Democrats use the EPA as leverage to get something done?


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