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October 07, 2012 10:07 AM The Left and Right Myths of Affordable Care Act’s Path to Law

By Jonathan Bernstein

Ah, deflating myths. I’ve decided that the patron saint of those who attempt to deflate myths must be Pie Traynor. For some reason, Pie Traynor at one time wound up with the reputation of being the Greatest Ever Third Baseman, despite the clear fact that, well, he wasn’t anything special, at least not of that level. Anyway, it took a long detour having to do with Brooks Robinson (a great player, to be sure), but as far as I know cares about Pie Traynor anymore, and  perhaps he’s now actually unfairly undervalued, if anyone bothers valuing him at all. So maybe myths really can be deflated over time. At any rate:

One more time. Like it or hate it, everyone seems to agree about one thing when it comes to the Affordable Care Act: the way that it was passed was extraordinary. Republicans believe that it was “rammed through” Congress (see for example an otherwise excellent column over the weekend); Democrats believe it was stalled for months as Barack Obama and Max Baucus desperately tried and failed at a pointless effort to achieve consensus.

The truth?

Passage of the ACA was about as normal as it gets in the contemporary Congress. Was it unduly delayed? No, not really; sure, it’s always possible to find ways that a schedule could have been accelerated a week here or a week there, but there’s really nothing in the timeline for passing this extremely complex piece of legislation that cries out “delay.” As far as the conservative case, there’s really nothing there either. The use of reconciliation as part of the final passage of portions of the bill was unusual, but that’s normal under a regime of what Barbara Sinclair calls “Unorthodox Lawmaking.” It’s not as if they held the vote open on the House floor for hours while lobbyists bribed party leaders and their allies used personally rewarding highly persuasive methods to woo reluctant Republicans.

Basically, what we learn from Sinclair and other Congressional scholars is that billls take a long time to become law; that in the current era many major bills are really omnibus combinations of many smaller pieces of legislation; that no bill becomes a law without numerous deals and trade-offs; that Congress is strongly polarized along party lines and that therefore we should expect partisan votes on key bills, especially when unified government allows bills to become law without out-party votes; that multiple committees and the party leadership will all be involved; and that the paths various bills take from soup to nuts can differ quite a bit, requiring lawmakers to be innovative and flexible about procedures. All of which was on display in the passage of the ACA. Basically, if you think something happened during that story that shouldn’t have happened, go read Sinclair. There certainly are a lot of interesting things that happened, and it’s a very good how-a-bill-becomes-a-law story, but mainly because it’s such a great example of how the process works these days — not because someone did something wrong.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.