Calvin Freiburger

Didn’t We Just Learn That Rushing Bills Through Congress Was a BAD Thing?

Posted on April 27 2010 4:00 pm
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.
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At the Daily Beast, Matthew Yglesias has a bad feeling about the way Senate Democrats are going about passing financial “reform” legislation—rushing it through in much the same way they rammed though health care “reform”:

It means we’re looking at a bill that punts on many of the biggest issues. It means that neither the broad public nor the narrower circle of policy elites and experts and semi-experts have a firm grasp of the relevant questions. And this in turn means that we’ve got a bill whose main premise is that we need to trust the same institutions and many of the same people who were arguably responsible for the crisis in the first place.

So far, so good.  However, he then turns around and suggests that America’s recent adventure with ObamaCare offers three points in the “fairly strong” case for speed:

First, one lesson of health care is that lengthy negotiations can be sabotaged by bad faith. During the summer of 2009, Baucus held extended negotiations with Chuck Grassley and other Republicans who never signed on to any version of comprehensive health reform or offered any concrete proposals that would earn their votes. Instead Grassley, like Senator Olympia Snowe, offered vague complaints about the process and the need for more time. Meanwhile, hard-core conservatives hammered the non-existent proposal as containing “death panels” and all manner of evils and the Democrats were left with no specific bill to defend.

He’ll get no objection from me that Republicans largely failed to articulate compelling alternatives to the public, but why should any of them have “signed on to any version of comprehensive health reform” that the Obama Administration backed, if Republicans didn’t believe in those proposals’ ideological presuppositions?  Further, suggesting that “bad faith” was primarily a GOP failing is a serious case of revisionism.  To quote, well, me:

Throughout this entire process, the Democrats have tried to scare off substantive questions and disagreement with seething vitriol, have lied about serious flaws with the legislation, have bought supporters rather than convinced them on the merits, and have attempted to circumvent the democratic process itself.  On healthcare and other issues, Barack Obama often insists that “the time for talk is over.”  (All of this, incredibly, for a bill many Democrats couldn’t even be bothered to read before passing.)

Yglesias’s second point:

[A]s the health care process dragged on, it was hard to say that the bill got better. It would be nice to think that deliberation would improve policy, but for the most part it seemed to lead to hostage-taking and shakedowns ending in the infamous farce of the Cornhusker Kickback.

Wait—so it’s the process’s fault that Democratic leaders turned to underhanded tactics to pass their bill?  At best, Yglesias has demonstrated that no political process can fully circumvent the need for officeholders to possess character and prudence; this is not an argument against deliberation itself.

Indeed, since ObamaCare’s passage, we’ve learned all sorts of exciting things about the legislation.  Gee, some deliberation would have been nice, wouldn’t it?  It’s almost as if ideologically-driven politicians sought to deflect attention from the bill’s shortcomings or something…

Third, one specific concern I heard repeatedly from administration officials before the financial regulation ball really got rolling was that the issue was too complicated for the public to ever grasp in detail. The risk was that special interest groups, whose lobbyists are certainly capable of understanding legislation in a fine-grained way, could use an extended process to turn the bill into Swiss cheese, leaving us to pass a useless bill to much fanfare. Better to have technocrats write a decent bill, then let them ride public outrage at Wall Street to a swift and glorious victory.

This is perhaps the most disturbing point: if some issues are too complex for the people to “ever” understand, then why is Congress taking them up at all?  The essence of self-government is that the people give their assent to all decisions that affect them, and retain the final authority to judge all such actions.  America’s system of government was not designed for “technocrats” to write “decent bills” irrespective of the public’s judgment or comprehension.

It’s all well and good for Yglesias recognize that “on many aspects of financial regulatory reform, there’s no real consensus among reputable analysts about what should be done,” but it still presupposes that “reputable analysts” are the ones who should be doing the deciding.  I’m no financial expert, and won’t presume to know how to tackle (if at all) the issues surrounding Wall Street, but I do know that the way we routinely discuss them shows we’re as far as we’ve ever been from a healthy understanding of how to govern.


Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College.  He also blogs at the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.

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