Monday, December 21, 2009

Leadership IS Making Sausage

Sure, it was pretty ugly watching the Senate Democrats lurch their way to the 60 votes necessary to pass a health care bill this week. But Paul Krugman is sooooo wrong when he self-righteously derides the process as dysfunctional in his Monday NY Times column.

Krugman's definition of a functional legislature is one that passes bills he likes.

In his rant against the filibuster, he fails to understand that if fewer than 60 votes were required, as he proposes, the last handful would have been just as tough to get, whether the necessary number was 51 or 53 or whatever.

The very visible process of horse-trading and negotiation that we have witnessed illustrates both (1) the essence of legislating in a representative democracy and (2) the agonies of adaptive leadership.

The Essence of Representative Democracy. If Krugman had spent a little more time the real world and less in academia, he would better understand that no issue, health care or climate change or Afghanistan is discrete. Everything is connected to everything else. (I am not defending the Republicans, who apparently made a conscious choice to opt out, despite the President's apparent willingness to make it worthwhile for them, at least some of them, to get in the game. I was disappointed to see that Senator Snowe did not hang in there and swallow the Rube Goldberg machine that emerged in the Senate.)

Despite Krugman's perspective, there are good, decent Members of Congress who care about other priorities more than they do about covering the uninsured. They are not sinners; they just have other, often just as noble, higher priorities. So they see their responsibility in the health care battle to let others worry about the details, while they figure out how they can use health care and their role in it to advance causes they care more deeply about, like, for example, making sure that no taxpayer funds pay for abortions or getting funding for folks who have been poisoned in Montana or even picking up points on the Republican side by voting "no" in order to keep the lines of communication open in order to get some Republican support for some issues like the climate change bill or the financial regulation reform bill, which may not have the necessary 60 Democratic votes.

The Agonies of Adaptive Leadership. Adaptation, making progress, moving forward to a new reality, is difficult because it requires people to choose between what is of the essence and must be preserved, and what is expendable and can be left behind. Every Member of the Senate cared about some potential piece of the package more than others. But all the Democrats, or the vast majority of them, cared numero uno about insuring the 30 million uninsured. For those, like Senator Nelson, who cared about making certain that no taxpayer funds were spent for abortion more than he cared about insuring the uninsured, it was easy for him to hold out until he had pushed the drafters on his numero uno as far as they could go without losing left-leaning Senators. And for those left-leaners, Senator Sanders and his ilk, they had to go through the difficult process of deciding what they cared about the most, and then sacrificing other priorities in its behalf.

It was a perfectly functional, if painful and messy journey. The final bill embodied a fair conglomeration of the most treasured values of the 60 Members needed for passage.

Prioritizing what you care about, disappointing some constituencies - no one likes to go through that process, which, if you are writing a column for the NY Times and teaching at Princeton, you rarely have to do.


pkmarx said...

That you find “noble higher priorities” for “getting funding for those who have been poisoned in Montana” as part of the health bill is accurate, worthy, and an outstanding example of legislating in a representative democracy.
Senator Max Baucus, in this instance, earns the praise. His true noble higher priority is Libby, Montana (pop. 2,900) where more than 200 have been killed and more than 1,000 struck ill – the result of widespread asbestos contamination caused by 91 years of mining for vermiculite, a product used for insulation. The mine, operated by W.R. Grace from 1963 until shutdown in 1990, has a nasty and contentious clean-up legacy that remains a plague. Senator Baucus held steady on this issue for years and went far beyond his authority to mitigate the poisoning there and set a standard to clean up other messes throughout the country.
Even so, I hasten to evoke a systems “sin” that implicates Baucus – a pervasive sin that radically diminishes politics as the art of the possible. I call attention to Washington Post report (July 21, 2009):
“Baucus's fundraising prowess underscores the enduring political strength of the health-care lobby, which led all other sectors in donations to federal candidates during the last election cycle and has shifted its giving to Democrats as the party has tightened its control of Congress.
“The sector gave nearly $170 million to federal lawmakers in 2007 and 2008, with 54 percent going to Democrats, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. The shift in parties was even more pronounced during the first three months of this year, when Democrats collected 60 percent of the $5.4 million donated by health-care companies and their employees, the data show.
“But Baucus, a senator from a sparsely populated and conservative Western state who is serving his sixth term, stands out for the rising tide of health-care contributions to his campaign committee, Friends of Max Baucus, and his political-action committee, Glacier PAC. Baucus collected $3 million from the health and insurance sectors from 2003 to 2008, about 20 percent of the total, data show. Less than 10 percent of the money came from Montana.”

Please, anyone, does this recommend an “essential” to be preserved -- a “perfectly functional part of a painful and messy journey?”

Wisdom recommends not a condemnation of a “sinner-saint” but the constant challenge of a pervasive shadow system that pollutes and poisons.

Patrick Marx

Anonymous said...

Watching US Politics form this side of the world (Netherlands, for that matter) it seems to me that the adaptive challenges are clear. Doing away with some items on a politicians "whish list" requires courage as is described in John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in courage". Showing the guts to even think long term (i.e. beyond next elections) requires restraint and prioritizing and a lot of other adaptive capacities. Thank God for the men and women who not only care about their own beliefs but who are willing and able to put the future of all Americans Numero Uno.

Kind regards,
Rob van den Hurk

Anonymous said...

I don't find your point of view on this subject particularly cogent and framed in reality. Granted, creating legislation is somewhat like makig saugage, but at least sausage making doesn't include lobbyist who have their own narrow interest at heart. The idea that insuring 30 million americans is comaparable to not using tax dollars to "fund" abortions is patently short-sighted. Our tax dollars fund a lot of things that I personally have a problem with. The difference between me an senator nelson is his belief is based on ideology embedded in a religous philosophy that subscribes that the human species is 10,000 yrs old, a big flood destroyed everything and everyone, and that a snake got someone to eat an apple thereby bringing sin into the world. On the other hand I believe that in a civil society all citizens should have a right to decent affordable healthcare. I am on the same side of most of the great philosophers of our time.

I enjoyed your Adaptive Leadership book, but I am at a loss to fully understand how you can equate the obstructive measures that both parties have used to shape the healthcare debate when both parties have been beholden to lobbyists.

It seems to me the enemy to good processes and leadership is the ubiquitous use relativism. The fact of the matter is the earth is round not flat. There is no debate. People who propose that the earth is "a little flat" sound inflexible and silly in light of science. The same holds true for people who draw a moral equivalent to 30 million people and kids receiving basic healthcare. I'm interested. What do you think Darwin would say?



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Everything is up to every member of the group. Changes are constant, and the members would certainly need time to cope with everything. However, at times like this, the leader should be the 2nd one to depend on. The 1st should be their selves.

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Anonymous said...

Painful and messy journey indeed. An eloquent and thoughtful article. Thank you for contributing to the intelligence of our humankind.

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