Stuck with the Senate

Why it makes sense for Obama to focus on the upper house

American health care system is in need of reform. Does President Barack Obama’s job consist of finding a way to pass the best possible bill (however that’s defined)? Or is it finding a way to pass the best possible bill, considering the objective political constraints imposed by Congress—and, in particular, the Senate?

The realistic answer, as any serious observer of American politics could tell you, is pretty clearly the second. But fuzziness and wishful thinking on this point seems to pervade a lot of commentary about the politics of the health care debate, including David Rogers’s otherwise interesting lead article in Politico today, headlined, “Has Obama misused the House?”

There are two strands to Rogers’s argument: first, that by taking the House of Representatives for granted and not working more closely with its members, Obama risks alienating them; and second, that for a variety of institutional and procedural reasons, a bill produced by the House would be a better one—with better seemingly defined here as something reflecting genuine compromise and representative of “the political center.”

Both these arguments are persuasive, to a point. It would be nice if our elected representatives took their responsibility to do the public’s business more seriously than their hurt feelings, but hey, they’re human. And Rogers, a veteran reporter well respected for his knowledge of how Congress works, makes a good case that House rules allowing members to directly choose between competing alternatives would be a better way of arriving at a bill that commands real public support—better, that is, than the Senate’s byzantine system of committees and subcommittees, or this White House’s penchant for cutting side deals with industry groups.

But even if the House were to come up with the Platonic ideal of health care reform, it would still have to be approved by the Senate, and Rogers offers no real explanation for why a superior, House-crafted bill would find favor in the upper chamber. The Senate, after all, is a strange, strange place. It was, from the start, a place to stop things from getting done. Over the years, its members have created peculiar perks, patterns, and rules that serve to increase the power of individual members—that is, to create additional veto points.

Rogers argues that the Senate, in its current “dysfunctional” form, is “not what it used to be,” but what it used to be wasn’t always so hot either—as he notes, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of the epochal pieces of twentieth-century legislation and a law passed during what is now considered a more collegial, less partisan era, cleared the Senate because the leadership circumvented normal procedure, something that seems unlikely for health care.

Add to all this the fact that Senate Democrats, while numerous, are more likely than their House counterparts to be moderate or conservative, and thus to be generally skeptical of large social legislation that involves a lot of money, and you’ve got a serious obstacle for the president. The House, by contrast, is easy pickings. Put yourself in Barack Obama’s shoes—doesn’t it make sense to spend more of your time and attention on the obstacle?

Rogers’s article, like many of the other stories finding fault with some element or other of legislative strategy, seems really to be based on a frustration with our political system’s inability to take action in the face of large challenges. There’s good reason for that frustration—our political system is not designed to facilitate action! But if Obama is to be faulted, it should be for the ways in which he’s struggled with Congress as it is—not for failing to turn it into something that it, perhaps, should be.

UPDATE, 3:30 p.m.: In retrospect, “easy pickings” was probably too strong to describe the situation in the House—as The Washington Post reported today, there are real divisions within the House Democratic caucus, too. Still, the relative level of difficulty in the Senate, for reasons both political and structural, is much greater.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.