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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Small Package Legislation a Wiser Strategy?

These days, most blogging about political strategy is understandably focused on the mid term elections. But longer-term strategic thinking merits more attention if Democrats want to make the party more effective. Michael Lind’s Sunday WaPo article, “Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small” is a thoughtful contribution in this regard, and he provides a number of insightful observations that merit consideration. The problem, acocrding to Lind:

Washington has fallen in love with “comprehensive reform” — legislation aimed at solving all aspects of a big problem in one dramatic and history-making move. We saw it with health care. Now comprehensive financial regulatory reform has passed in the House, with a Senate vote expected soon. Up next may come energy legislation, following President Obama’s Oval Office speech last month proclaiming a new “national mission” to wean America off fossil fuels. Comprehensive immigration reform, which failed back in 2007, waits in the wings, with the president calling for such an effort in a July 1 address. And a push for comprehensive fiscal reform will surely come on the heels of the recommendations this fall from Obama’s deficit commission.
…But it does not follow that each complex, giant problem must be addressed by one complex, giant bill. If anything, history shows that piecemeal reforms are often more lasting than a legislative Big Bang.

Lind adds “Politicians are seduced by comprehensive reform because history tends to glorify presidents and legislators who pass big, definitive laws.” He cites smaller, incremental legislation, such as the Glass-Seagall Act of 1932, the Securities Act of 1933, which required public disclosure of corporate information to shareholders, followed by the 1934 Securities Exchange Act and 1935 Banking Act — a series of individual laws adding up to an impressive financial reform package, but over time, not all at once.
The question arises whether a piecemeal enactment of the health care reform provisions in the Obama reform package might also have included a public option, if it could have been tackled as a separate proposal, with no other distraction. Or alternatively, whether an incremental strategy would have bogged down into even longer debates with no resolution. it’s possible that the comprehensive packaging of health care reform was an asset because it encouraged supporters to sign on, despite doubts about particular provisions.
Lind acknowledges the frequently noted argument for big package reform — that the interconnected nature of many social problems, such as health care or immigration reform may require more complex legislative solutions than in earlier eras. Breaking the packages down into a series of individual reforms and debating and fighting over them one-by-one might be even more exhausting for politicians and the public.
He sees three “critical problems, however, with choosing a comprehensive reform strategy over piecemeal, or incremental reforms: 1. “Excessive leverage” and “bargaining power” to influence legislation against the collective will of a bill’s supporters are given to individual Senators, such as we have recently seen with Sens, Joe Lieberman and Nelson; 2. Big Package reform presumes an absurd amount of accurate foresight on the part of mere mortals who happen to be elected officials — “The longer the time horizon, the greater the hubris of those who claim to be solving problems not just for today but for generations to come.” and; 3. There may not be legislative solutions to all problems — “…Some challenges are not problems to be solved, but situations to be ameliorated or endured.”
Lind argues further,

Instead of striding boldly into the future, we should grope our way cautiously forward, ever ready to back up upon encountering an obstacle and always prepared to consider an alternative path if the road is blocked…Instead of aspiring to achieve irrevocable, comprehensive reform by the second Monday of next month, let’s consider reforms that are piecemeal and reversible if we discover they do not work.

I would add that piecemeal/incremental reform doesn’t have to be slow-paced, although it can be, when necessary. Perhaps enacting the “lower-hanging fruit” in a reform package first, building up to the more contentious proposals, would be more effective than trying to sell it all at once.
Lind is undoubtedly right that a little humility would serve reform advocates well. Or at least, a little more candor in admitting that reform legislation can be tweaked later to adjust to changing conditions or mistakes.
He touches on the important point that smaller packages are smaller targets, and “less vulnerable to attack” and distortion. Coming at it from a slightly different angle, smaller packages can be explained more coherently to voters — a simple reform that serves both justice and good economic sense is easier to understand than a complex package with myriad bells, whistles and moving parts.
Lind quotes FDR’s remarks during the 1932 campaign to compelling effect: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation…It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Amazing, that 78 years later, that sounds like a credible approach for our times, coming from the Democratic Partys’ most effective champion of reform.

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