Although I laugh and I act like a clown, beneath this mask I am wearing a frown. My tears are falling like rain from the sky. Is it for her or myself that I cry? I’m a loser – and I lost someone who’s near to me. I’m a loser – and I’m not what I appear to be. What have I done to deserve such a fate? I realize I have left it too late, and so it’s true, pride comes before a fall. I’m telling you so that you won’t lose all. I’m a loser -and I lost someone who’s near to me. I’m a loser – and I’m not what I appear to be. It is interesting that one of the most successful rock and roll bands in history, the Beatles, had a song about failure. Written by John Lennon (although like most Beatles songs credited to Lennon-McCartney), the song was released as the B-side to the single Rock and Roll Music in December of 1964.
While the song is about a lost love, it may reflect how Rep. Paul Ryan is now feeling about the botched roll-out of a bill that he placed into consideration as a replacement for the deteriorating Obamacare system. The bill, the American Health Care Act was a 141 page hodgepodge of provisions including many already in the Obamacare rules like surcharges for those who do not carry insurance, credits for individuals to purchase insurance, provisions to require insurance plans to offer certain types of coverage, and to not allow for consideration of pre-existing conditions. It was what Rep. Ryan billed as the first part of a three step plan to repeal and replace the Obamacare legislation.
Anticipating that the provision would garner no votes from Democrats in either the House or the Senate, it was designed to fall under certain Senate provisions allowing it to be passed with a simple majority rather than the 60 Senate votes generally needed to bring a bill to the floor. In the end, however the bill was not able to garner support from either the conservative or liberal wings of the Republican majority in the House and was pulled. This has been reported on as a big defeat for Rep. Ryan, though even if the bill had been passed, Senate approval was unlikely considering that it would have needed nearly every Republican and the Vice President’s votes.
There are some important lessons in the failure of the American Health Care Act that nearly everyone working in Government Affairs understand, and that the House Leadership and those advising the President should also have known. They are key lessons that are required to pass any type of legislation from changing nearly 18 percent of the economy to renaming a street corner. These are:
1) The Power of Thirds: This is the most important lesson that I have learned working with legislation. No matter what is being considered in what body, almost always, a third of the votes are with you, a third are against you and a third are persuadable. This is true in a City Council, the Senate of the United States and as we just found out, in the Republican Caucus of the House.
This bill never considered the wider House of Representatives, nor the wider Congress, but was designed (like Obamacare itself) as a partisan bill. To get this passed, the Republicans needed their Caucus to be almost 100 percent for the bill. This was never going to happen because no matter what, there are almost always dissenting votes. The Democrats understood this when they rammed Obamacare through (which was why VP Biden said it was a big freaking deal that it passed).
Knowing that a big part of the Caucus was not going to vote for the bill without a lot of persuasion, the other factors mattered even more, and it appears if the leadership simply forgot that.
2) The Christmas Tree Factor: We all love Christmas trees because they are so colorful, so lit up, and covered with ornaments of all shapes and sizes. But what makes a Christmas tree so fun, makes a legislative proposal scary. The more that is in a proposal, the more complicated it is to pass. This is true outside of politics as well. A limerick is easier to understand that a Shakespearian play, in economics supply and demand is easier to understand than general equilibrium, and a complicated home design has more to go wrong with it than a log cabin. Simple is simply better.
The idea of making a piece of legislation a Christmas Tree is an old one and harkens back to the deal making of legislators like Sen. Richard Russell or Sen. Lyndon Johnson, when it was easier to put earmarks in a piece of legislation. So a Senator could trade a vote for an airport in their district, or for funding for his wife’s organization. This is much harder to do in legislation today. It is also a lot less complicated to understand simple trades than it is to understand 100 pages of rules that impact the economy.
A bill like the one proposed by columnist Ann Coulter – There shall be a free market in health care – would be easier to pass than hundreds of pages of tax provisions, rules on insurers, and penalties on citizens. And even though the Ryan plan was arguably less complex and more practical than the overly complex Obamacare rules, it was still too complex to explain to the voters that Members rely on to keep them in their cushy (and by the way, well insured) positions.
The old rule is that if you want to kill a piece of legislation, load it up like a Christmas Tree. I’m not sure that the Republican leadership remembered this one.
3) Process Matters: Government is all about process. There are ways that things get done, and in order to get them done, one must follow the process. This is one reason why President Obama was so unsuccessful in making lasting changes – he simply could not work with the legislative process, and we are seeing many of his key “successes” being overridden by a stroke of a pen. President Trump’s first immigration orders also showed how much process matters in Washington, and probably tainted his second attempt.
In the case of the American Health Care Act, while the House leadership did conform to regular rules, and did go through the committee process, there was a constant undertone that there was a deadline for passing the bill, and that it really could not be changed in any meaningful way. In other words, it was a take it or leave it bill being rushed through the process.
This is not how the legislative process works. In fact, many bills come to committee year after year before they finally come to a vote, and it can take a long time for a bill to finally reach the floor of the House. Over this period, horse trading can occur and unlike festooning a bill like a Christmas Tree (see item 2), the legislation can be tweaked in such a way as to gain sponsors.
Representative Ryan rushed this bill to the floor before key people had the time to build a constituency for the legislation, and while one can argue that the Republicans had 7 years to do that, they did not do it, and they were not ready to bring this legislation to a prime time audience.
4) It’s All About Me: I have yet met a legislator (or any politician for that matter) who was not unnaturally egotistical. If one thinks that members of Congress are doing things simply to help their community I have a bridge in Brooklyn and a tower in Paris that I would like to sell them. Now we all like to toot our own horn, we all like to see our name or picture in the paper (unless it’s from a perp walk), we all like to win the bowling trophy, we all like to be recognized at our local diner, but politicians live on recognition. They need it like the rest of us need air and water.
Politicians get recognition in a number of ways. They get their names put on airports, and roads, and buildings. In New York City, they all want their names on trash cans (no, really that is what they do). Another way is by getting their names on legislation. Most of us saw this as Paul Ryan’s bill. It was not a House Republican bill, it was his. The need to be important outstripped the need to pass the legislation. On the Sunday shows, the members of the House Freedom Caucus were all suggesting that they were not part of the bill-drafting process. They were left out and did not get to sit in the room with the popular kids.
If this legislation were ever going to pass with just the House Republicans, they all needed to be on board to the member. The leadership needed to follow all of the rules for passing legislation to the letter. The Democrats did this when they passed Obamacare, and that law will remain in place until the Republicans involve everyone, make everyone feel important and invested, and make important trades outside of the bill (they could have named a lot of buildings and trash cans for example). John Lennon was right, pride comes before a fall. The House leadership needs to remember this.