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One of the Strangest Op-Eds You May Ever Get To Read

02 Mar 2010
Posted by Andrew Samwick

I think this op-ed, "Reconciliation on health care would be an assault on the democratic process" by Orrin Hatch has appeared 30 days ahead of schedule.  Reconciliation is not the assault on democracy -- the Senate is the assault on democracy.  Senator Hatch may like the way the Senate requires supermajorities and other obstacles to the simplest version of majority rule that most of us think of when we hear the word "democracy," but he shouldn't go redefining words on his own. That's not what language is for.

And the fun doesn't stop there.  Here are three more offenses against language that jump off the page:

1) Hatch refers to the reconciliation process as "arcane."  I don't think so.  The filibuster that reconciliation would circumvent is arcane. 

2) Hatch again takes some liberties with the definition of democracy:

This use of reconciliation to jam through this legislation, against the will of the American people, would be unprecedented in scope. 

Readers of the blog know I am no particularly fan of the health care bills, but if a majority of the elected representatives in both houses and the elected occupant of the White House all support the bill, then I think that "against the will of the American people" is a pretty tough sell.

3) I never thought I would see the Medicare Part D legislative process held up as a model.  Read it and wonder:

But when President George W. Bush and Congress created the prescription drug benefit in 2003, we Republicans in the Senate decided against using reconciliation because it would have made the plan partisan and condemned this important legislation to failure. Instead, the bill garnered significant bipartisan support -- demonstrating why reconciliation was not even attempted. That precedent should carry the day here.

Has Hatch forgotten the events of November 2003?  Apparently so.  But Bruce Bartlett hasn't:

Even with a deceptively low estimate of the drug benefit's cost, there were still a few Republicans in the House of Representatives who wouldn't roll over and play dead just to buy re-election. Consequently, when the legislation came up for its final vote on Nov. 22, 2003, it was failing by 216 to 218 when the standard 15-minute time allowed for voting came to an end.

What followed was one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history. The vote was kept open for almost three hours while the House Republican leadership brought massive pressure to bear on the handful of principled Republicans who had the nerve to put country ahead of party. The leadership even froze the C-SPAN cameras so that no one outside the House chamber could see what was going on.

Among those congressmen strenuously pressed to change their vote was Nick Smith, R-Mich., who later charged that several members of Congress attempted to virtually bribe him, by promising to ensure that his son got his seat when he retired if he voted for the drug bill. One of those members, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was later admonished by the House Ethics Committee for going over the line in his efforts regarding Smith.

Eventually, the arm-twisting got three Republicans to switch their votes from nay to yea: Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, Butch Otter of Idaho and Trent Franks of Arizona. Three Democrats also switched from nay to yea and two Republicans switched from yea to nay, for a final vote of 220 to 215. In the end, only 25 Republicans voted against the budget-busting drug bill. (All but 16 Democrats voted no.)

Whatever happens with health care reform, that particular precedent should NOT carry the day.



Andrew, Minor, geeky point,


Minor, geeky point, but relevant enough since your argument pertains to language and definitions: Regarding your Point #2, Hatch is not necessarily "tak[ing] some liberties with the definition of democracy". If one accepts (at least arguendo) the premise that, based on polls and any other indicators, a given bill would be rejected via referendum, then one can legitimately argue that passage of that bill by elected representatives is "undemocratic" per the concept of "direct democracy" ("pure democracy"), as opposed to "representative democracy" or a "republic", which is what we actually have.

All that said and technical definitions aside, your point is fine for all practical purposes, since our version of democracy is the representative sort (although if the Tea Party, pitchfork-toting mobs had their way perhaps we wouldn't be).


How "the American people" answer polls changes from moment to moment and is highly dependent on how the questions are asked. Asked about a bill that has been demonized in so many ways, many will say they're against it. If anyone had asked me, 2 months ago, I would have said *I* was against it. My bet is that they would not have asked me WHY.

Ask them if they think people whose employers don't offer health coverage should be able to get it. Ask them if they think insurers should not be able to practice "rescission" (and explain what that means), and they'll agree. Ask them if they prefer their current insurance or something like the Medicare their parents get, and my bet is many would say Medicare.

As for Part D, I stayed up most of the night waiting for that result - and what I found most striking was how little attention was paid at the time to how it was accomplished. By now it should be apparent that Republicans like Hatch, McCain, etc., either have no memory or assume that no one else does.

Minority Rule

You don't take this far enough.

We are subject to a new 'tyranny of the minority'.

Such tyrannies spawn revolutions. We have our entrenched elites, our idle rich, our elites gorging and scheming. What we don't have, yet, is the rising up of the ordinary people. But that will come, if things don't change.

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