[digg-reddit-me]Watching Lamar Alexander being interviewed on This Week it struck me that he was defending how the least popular institution in America works. Being a politician, he wouldn’t admit this outright – but his meaning was rather clear:
Well, you know, former governors — and I’m one — always have a hard time with the Senate. You know, we’re — we’re used — governors are used to saying, “Let’s go this way,” and a legislator in a reactor to things. So that’s part of the problem.
According to Alexander, the problem is that governors expect to get things done – that’s “part of the problem.” Lamar Alexander defends the the Senate as an institution designed to slow things down; but he further defends the current status quo which combines recent rules changes and a changed political atmosphere, to create an institution now seemingly designed to prevent any major legislation from being passed at all. Lamar Alexander though – and many other Republicans these days – defend this status quo. Alexander claims that this inability to create big programs means we instead will have to adopt a piecemeal approach, which is better. From an interview with Ezra Klein:
It is arrogant to imagine that 100 senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health-care system that constitutes 17 percent of the world’s largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances.
He lists all the failed bills that attempted to find comprehensive solutions to problems that failed in the Senate: Immigration and social security reform under Bush, health care reform under Clinton, health care and climate change under Obama. But Alexander sees this as a good thing:
We don’t do comprehensive well in the Senate. It’s not because we don’t do our job well. It’s because we’re such a complicated country.
The common understanding, and probably the true one is that Alexander – like George Will – apparently has come around to this disdain for comprehensive solutions in the period since a Democrat took office. Accusations always fly back and forth over convenient flip flops regarding institutional power and procedures once the balance of powers changes. This isn’t news – and its hard to figure out how to approach this issue if you don’t take the position being offered at face value, even if you can see the partisan strings that seem to be motivating the change in position. Even Alexander’s position seems at odds with the Republican plans he cites and supports – allowing insurance to be sold across state lines for example which is an extremely radical move.
But if you squint you may see some consistency in Alexander’s positions. Alexander may not be deriding radicalism as it seems, but, as his words say, “comprehensive” radicalism. The problem isn’t then that the Senate might introduce a radical change that entirely changes America’s health care system – it’s that the solution is comprehensive and complicated. One thing each of the comprehensive failures Alexander points out have in common is that they all involved difficult and contentious issues with many interests groups competing and the reform attempted to preserve many elements of the status quo. The only status quo that I’ve heard Lamar Alexander defend however is the broken legislative body of which he is a member.
On the other hand, Alexander was a major proponent of Bush’s tax cuts which were radical, budget-busting legislation that significantly re-wrote America’s social contract. They weren’t part of some comprehensive plan though – they were just one isolated measure enacted (perhaps) without regard to the consequences or preserving the status quo. (Or, actually several isolated measures.) He supported the Iraq War which was certainly radical – but once again, didn’t seem to be part of any comprehensive plan to accomplish anything. He supported Medicare Part D – which seem much closer to being comprehensive, but could also be seen as merely “fixing a hole in the roof” and helping out the seniors who he needs to get reelected.
Senator Alexander’s problem then isn’t with radical measures passing the Senate. It is with well-thought out and complicated legislation – with, in his words, “comprehensive” legislation.
[Image by Talk Radio News licensed under Creative Commons.]