Posted on January 21, 2010
Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, delivered a speech on the Senate floor Thursday morning "arguing about what he believes to be a key philosophical differences in governance that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans—the 'comprehensive' versus the 'step-by-step' approach."
Senator Alexander said, “What are Republicans for? You’ll be waiting a long time for the answer if you’re waiting for the Republican leader to roll into the Senate a wheelbarrow filled with a 2,700-page Republican comprehensive health care bill. Or a 1,200-page climate change bill. Or a 900-page immigration bill.
“But if you’ve been listening carefully you will know that on health care, clean energy, debt reduction, and immigration, for example, Republicans have been offering this alternative to thousand-page bills: going step-by-step in the right direction to solve problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.
“Comprehensive immigration, climate change and health care bills have been well-intended, but the first two fell of their own weight, and health care, if enacted, will be an historic mistake for the country and a political kamikaze mission for Democrats."
Sen. Alexander continued, “What has united most Republicans against these three bills has not only been ideology but also that they were... comprehensive. As George Will might write: The. Congress. Does. Not. Do. Comprehensive. Well.
“Two recent articles help explain the difference between the Democratic comprehensive approach and the Republican step-by-step approach.
“The first, which appeared in the new journal National Affairs and was written by William Schambra of the Hudson Institute, explains the ‘sheer ambition’ of President Obama’s legislative agenda as the approach of a ‘Policy President.’ Mr. Schambra says that the president and most of his advisers have been trained at elite universities to govern by launching ‘a host of enormous initiatives all at once... formulating comprehensive policies aimed at giving large social systems—and indeed society itself—more rational and coherent forms and functions.’
“This is governing by taking big bites of several big apples and trying to swallow them all at once. In addition, according to Mr. Schambra, the most prominent organizational feature of the Obama Administration is its reliance on ‘czars’ – more than the Romanovs, said one blogger — to manage broad areas of policy. In this view, systemic problems of health care, energy, education and environment can’t be solved in pieces.
“Analyzing Mr. Schambra’s article, David Broder wrote in the Washington Post, ‘Historically that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to gain more than a brief ascendancy, and the Carter and Clinton presidencies were marked by striking policy failures.’ The reason for these failures, as Mr. Broder paraphrased Mr. Schambra, is that ‘this highly rational comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players...’
"Mr. Broder adds, 'Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit.’
“James Q. Wilson, in a memorial essay honoring Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal, says that the law of unintended consequences is what causes the failure of such comprehensive legislative schemes. Mr. Wilson explains, ‘Launch a big project, and you will almost surely discover that you have created many things you did not intend to create.’ Mr. Wilson also writes that neo-conservatism as Mr. Kristol originally thought of it in the 1960’s was not an organized ideology or even necessarily conservative but ‘a way of thinking about politics rather than a set of principles and rules. It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics,’ he says.
“The skepticism of Mr. Schambra, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Kristol toward grand legislative policy schemes helps to explain how the law of unintended consequences has made being a member of the ‘party of no’ a more responsible choice than being a member of the party of ‘yes, we can’ — if these three recent comprehensive bills on health care, climate change and immigration are the only choices.
“It is arrogant to imagine that one hundred United States Senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health care system that constitutes 17 percent of world’s largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances.
“How can we be sure, for example, that one unintended consequence of spending $2.5 trillion more for health care won’t be higher costs and more debt? Won’t new taxes also be passed along to consumers, raising premiums and discouraging job growth?
“Won’t charging insolvent states $25 billion for a Medicaid expansion raise state taxes and college tuitions? Ask any Governor.
“And how can a Senator be so sure that some provision stuck in a 2,700-page partisan bill in secret meetings and voted on during a snowstorm at 1 a.m. won’t come back around and slap him or her in the face—such as trying to explain why Nebraska got a ‘Cornhusker kickback’ to pay for its Medicaid expansion and my state didn’t?”
“James Q. Wilson also wrote in his essay that respect for the law of unintended consequences ‘is not an argument for doing nothing, but it is one, in my view, for doing things experimentally. Try your idea out in one place and see what happens before you inflict it on the whole country,’ he suggests.
“If you will examine the Congressional Record, you will find that Republican Senators have been following Mr. Wilson’s advice, proposing a step-by-step-approach to confronting our nation’s challenges 173 different times during 2009. On health care, we first suggested setting a clear goal: reducing cost. Then, we proposed the first six steps toward achieving that goal: (1) allowing small businesses to pool their resources to purchase health care plans, (2) reducing junk lawsuits against doctors, (3) allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines, (4) expanding health savings accounts, (5) promoting wellness and prevention, and (6) taking steps to reduce waste, fraud and abuse. We offered these six proposals in complete legislative text totaling 182 pages. The Democratic majority rejected all six, and ridiculed the approach – in part because our approach wasn’t 'comprehensive.'
“Or to take another example, in July all forty Republican senators announced agreement upon four steps to produce low-cost clean energy and create jobs: (1) create 100 nuclear power plants, (2) electrify half our cars and trucks, (3) explore offshore for natural gas and oil and (4) double energy research and development.
“This step-by-step Republican clean energy plan is an alternative to the Kerry-Boxer National Energy Tax which would impose an economy wide cap-and-trade scheme driving jobs overseas looking for cheap energy and collecting hundreds of billions of dollars each year for a slush fund with which Congress can play.
“Or here’s another example. In 2005 a bipartisan group of members of Congress asked the National Academies to identify the first ten steps Congress should take to preserve America’s competitive advantage so we can keep growing jobs. The Academies appointed a distinguished panel that recommended twenty such steps. Congress enacted two-thirds of them. The ‘America COMPETES Act’ of 2007 was far-reaching legislation, but it was fashioned step-by-step.
“When I was governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, my goal was ‘raising family incomes’ for what was then the third-poorest state. I found that the best way to move toward that goal was step-by-step – some steps smaller, some larger – such as amending banking laws, defending right-to-work policies, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting Japanese industry and then the auto industry, building four lane highways for auto suppliers, and then a ten-step ‘Better Schools’ plan, one step of which made Tennessee the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. I did not try to turn our entire state upside down all at once. But, working with leaders in both parties, I did help it change and grow step-by-step. Within a few years Tennessee became the fastest growing state in family incomes.
“According to a recent survey by ‘On message, Inc.,’ 61 percent of independents, 60 percent of ticket splitters, and 77 percent of Republicans answered ‘yes’ to the following statement: ‘I would rather see Congress take a more thoughtful step-by-step approach, focusing on common sense reforms.’ Human experience has always taught that enough small steps in the right direction will still get you where you want to go -- and along the way avoid many unexpected and unpleasant consequences.
“Tuesday’s election in Massachusetts is the latest reminder that the American people are tired of risky comprehensive schemes featuring taxes, debt, Washington takeovers and lots of hidden and unexpected surprises. It is time to declare that the era of the 1,000-page bill or the 2,000-page bill or the 2,700-page bill is over. A wiser approach would be to set a clear goal, such as reducing health care costs, take a few steps in that direction, and then a few more, so that we can start solving our country’s problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.”