National Review: Senator Alexander's Op-Ed "Step by Step"

Incremental improvements are better than comprehensive reforms.

Posted on January 25, 2010

What are Republicans for?

For the Democratic senators who kept asking this question during the health-care debate, the only answer was for Mitch McConnell to roll a wheelbarrow onto the Senate floor with an alternative 2,700-page, comprehensive Republican health-care bill. Or a 1,200-page Republican climate-change bill. Or a 900-page Republican immigration bill. But people expecting that kind of an answer will be waiting a long time.

On health care, clean energy, debt reduction, and immigration, Republicans have been offering an 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.

The Democrats’ comprehensive immigration, climate-change, and health-care bills have been well-intended, but the first two collapsed under their own weight, and health care, if it doesn’t do the same, will be a historic mistake for the country and a political kamikaze mission for Democrats.

What has united most Republicans against these three bills has been not only 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.” 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 akin to taking big bites from several apples and trying to swallow them all at once. In addition, according to 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 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 Broder paraphrased Schambra, is that “this highly rational comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players.” Broder adds, “Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit.”

Political scientist 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. Explains Wilson, “Launch a big project and you will almost surely discover that you have created many things you did not intend to create.” Wilson also writes that neoconservatism as Kristol originally thought of it in the 1960s 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 law of unintended consequences means that when the only choices are the recent immigration, climate-change, and health-care bills, being a member of the party of “no” is a more responsible choice than being a member of the party of “yes we can.”

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. 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 into 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 — how can he explain why Nebraska got a “Cornhusker kickback” to pay for its Medicaid expansion and his state didn’t?

Wilson also wrote 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.”

If you examine the Congressional Record, you will find that Republican senators have been following 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 it wasn’t “comprehensive.”

And in July, all 40 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 businesses overseas to look for cheap energy and collecting hundreds of billions of dollars each year for a slush fund with which Congress can play.

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 adding jobs. The Academies appointed a distinguished panel that recommended 20 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 to raise family incomes in what was then the third-poorest state. I found that the best way to move toward that goal was step-by-step. Some steps were smaller, some larger; they included amending banking laws, defending right-to-work policies, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting the auto industry, building four-lane highways for auto suppliers, and enacting 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. Working with leaders in both parties, I helped it change and grow step-by-step. Within a few years, Tennessee became the fastest-growing state in family incomes.

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 thousand-page bill is over. A wiser approach is 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.

— Lamar Alexander is a U.S. senator from Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on the Senate floor last Thursday.