The Sequence

Now that the bubbles are starting to go flat on the campaign champagne, Democrats need to start thinking–and quick–about what their agenda is and what sequence it ought to be dealt with.

Now that the bubbles are starting to go flat on the campaign champagne, Democrats need to start thinking–and quick–about what their agenda is and what sequence it ought to be dealt with. If I’m the Democrats, I actually go a bit slow on investigations–start using committee control to do the background research, but don’t start sending Henry Waxman out full bore yet. Doing otherwise looks vindictive. Waiting has the advantage that whatever revelations come out of oversight hearings will be even nearer the 2008 elections. I would also beg and plead with John Murtha not to challenge Steny Hoyer. Maybe there’s a good argument for it, but it changes the subject from what it ought to be. And nothing that changes the subject is a good idea.

Instead, I think it’s very important that Democrats hit the ground running with a small number of items with very large public support that will be very difficult for Republicans to stop (either by peeling off Dems or by getting Bush to veto) or will be politically damaging if they do. They are, in sequence:

a) Lobbying Reform (on this Dems. should be able to pass almost any bill, regardless of how much it favors them, so long as it says “lobbying reform” on it)

b) Earmark Reform.

c) Reform of House Ethics Committee. Having done (a), (b) and (c) in quick succession (and I mean within weeks), Dems will be able to say that they took the public’s desire for reform seriously. But, again, I think it’s very important that this happen very fast, while public expectations and attentiveness are high. Dems should not act like the voters gave them much rope.

Having done these three (preferably in the first month), Dems. should then move on to substantive issues on which there is large support for their position, even if the White House opposes it. They are:

a) Comprehensive immigration reform. I would make this truly comprehensive by adding very severe employer sanctions with a substantial budget to support enforcement. By passing comprehensive immigration reform, the Dems. show that they can do what the Republicans didn’t. And by adding the most severe employer sanctions possible, they put in place something that will make Republicans squirm, and perhaps attract a veto. Oh, and I also think this is good public policy: compared to border enforcement, sanctions on employers actually have a plausible theory behind them.

b) Allow the government to negotiate drug prices in Medicare Part D. I can’t imagine a Republican member of Congress who wants to run against ads in 2008 saying that he thought this was a bad idea. Do it before comprehensive reform of Medicare Part D (see below).

c) Pass an increase in the minimum wage (which I don’t think is a terribly fantastic idea, but it’s important to the party base).

d) Pass the remaining recommendations of the 9-11 commission.

None of these are, in my mind, of collosal importance. But they are all easy to do, and quickly. Dems should be able to get through the first tranche of reforms in their first month, and then move on to these in their second eight weeks. All of them have been exhaustively debated, so it isn’t as if substantial new vetting of the details is needed. Democrats should consult the White House as little as possible on them, to avoid being slowed up. Just send them up and dare Bush to veto.

It is very important that the party limit itself, to whatever degree it can, to these things and only these things, in roughly this order, so that they have maximum impact on the electorate. Then engage Bush on:

* Social Security reform. Don’t take anything off the table except private accounts. Everything, including cuts in benefits, is on the table. First and foremost, this lets Democrats look reasonable and bipartisan. Second, it needs to be done. Third, it is much better, if it needs to be done, that it be done when responsibility for it can be diffused across the two parties, than after 2008, when (we can hope) Democrats may have unified control of government, and all the responsibility will be on them. This will take a year or more, but as soon as they pass the items above, move on to this with a big flashy announcement. But be very careful about who is put on the panel–in particular, avoid John Breaux at all costs.

* Iraq. When Rumsfeld out, the most important architect of the Iraq disaster is already gone. The Baker-Hamilton commission is moving, and Democrats should basically get behind what they recommend, so long as it is reasonable. Despite most Democrats’ desire to pin the blame on the folks who screwed this up so badly, the most important duty of the party now is to help cauterize the wound. There will be plenty of time later in 2007 to start pulling out the really heavy investigative artillery. Having gotten behind a new strategy in Iraq in the first half of the year, Dems will be in a better position in the 2nd half to really start pinning the blame.

What Democrats should NOT do is go for any long bombs on domestic policy. The obvious one is still universal health care, which is the item that, more than any other, defines what it means to be a Democrat. Democrats should start setting themselves up to pass major comprehensive health care reform after the 2008 election. There’s no point trying to pass anything major on this now (since Bush would veto anything ambitious) but two years gives the party a long time to hold hearings, consider various different proposals, etc., and have a well-designed bill with strong party support ready as soon as a new (Democratic) president is sworn in. It would also give a presidential candidate a major piece of legislation to go to the voters with in 2008. The party should also look very closely at Jacob Hacker’s proposals for broad-based reform and expansion of social insurance, which you can read about here.

None of the items identified above command less than overwhelming party support. That’s why they should be put first and foremost. Democrats should insist that it is their agenda which has privileged access to the floor. Democrats should be especially wary about passing major procedural reform, at least early on. This is especially the case because come 2009, if they try to make a big push on health care, they may need all the procedural muscle they can get. Hopefully the “ethics” provisions described above should take the Mugwump pressure off the party to loosen up Congressional procedure.


Some of the comments here pick up on my suggestion that Democrats take the opportunity of divided government to make a deal on Social Security, questioning why we should do anything. I’m on record as saying that I think that most of the criticisms of the program are bull, and that private accounts are a terrible idea, even on libertarian principles. That all said, Social Security does have an (often overstated but real) financing problem. It’s better to deal with it sooner rather than later. It’s better to deal with it under divided government, when the blame for some painful measures can be diffused. The problems with Medicare are also real, but they are largely a function of the larger American system of health care delivery and insurance, which are better dealt with comprehensively, as part of a program of universal coverage. The people who think that Social Security is just fine honestly just don’t understand the numbers, or are so tired (as I am) of the Chicken Little-Pete Peterson overstatement that they’ve been driven to deny that there’s ANY problem. The financing problem in SS isn’t that complicated, requires some fairly modest adjustments, but needs to be done, and the sooner the better.

In short–modest, caution and bipartisanship now. Gain the trust of the voters by doing things with broad-based support, and that put Republicans in a bad light. Then start thinking Second New Deal in 2009.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

53 thoughts on “The Sequence”

  1. Hey bighhoss – and with all due respect, perhaps you are the one who should be going to France, whose citizens seem sorely in need of some of that good old robber baron greed is good, if you're poor it's your fault, every man for himself, God bless the shareholders and screw labor, free market brainwashing too.

  2. Ironic, I was in France just last week. While standing on Omaha beach a Frenchman thanked me, as an American, for the sacrifices of my father's generation. Many of the French with whom I spoke would love to have the opportunity we have here. Even with all their government provided benefits, I would not trade my middle class standard of living for theirs.
    It is because of economic opportunity provided by a capitalist free market economy that we have an illegal immigration problem. They want to be here to have the opportunity to make money and improve their lives. Government planned, highly regulated, high tax economies are at best stagnant if not outright failures. The Soviet Union imploded because its weak economy could not sustain a military buildup to compete with the United States. China has dumped communism and embraced capitalism, albiet with a facsist government. The economic, tax and regulatory evironment in China is such that American manufacturing can't compete. What will poor Americans do when consumer goods prices double at Wal-mart so that somewhere, some other American can keep their low productivity, union scale, free health care, defined benefit pension plan job ? When was the last time anyone writing on this page deliberately purchased a signifcantly higher priced item over the same item at a lower price solely because it was made in the USA?
    If the minimum wage was $10 or even $15, as some have suggested, my 16 year old son would not have been able to get a job last summer.
    A percentage tax cut will always favor those who pay the most taxes. 10% of $1,000,000 will always return more dollars to the taxpayer than 10% of 10,000. But if the fat cat take his ill gottn gains and buys a Cadillac who benefits? The auto worker. If he builds a house on the beach? Carpenters, electricians, plumbers. If he plows it back into a business? His employees. If he sticks it in the bank? A borrower buying a home. If he gives it to the government? They can send it to some third world hell hole whose people's hatred of each other is exceeded only by their hatred of us. Or maybe they can spend it on a bridge to nowhere. Or may be they can put it into to funding health care, nutrition and housing for the five illegitimate children by five different fathers of a 25 year old woman. ( but we all know that requiring birth control would violate her rights)
    The truth is that the capitalist free market economy has provided the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the history of the world. Whatever is in second place has never even come close. Can the system be abused? of course. Are there greedy charlatans? Absolutely!.
    But over all, if the people are sovereign in this country and can be trusted to govern, then it follows that they can make better economic decisions with their own money than some bureaucrat that has been handed a wad of money that doesn't belong to him.

  3. Did anyone else see the Frontline about pensions that PBS has been running lately? Maybe working up some kind of bankrupcy/pension reform legislation would be a good thing to persue at this point. A pocketbook/cleaning up corporate greed issue that might appeal to a broad cross section of both conservative and liberal voters.

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