Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Guide to the Health Care Debacle

Keith Hennessey has a B.A.S. degree in math and political science from Stanford, and a Master's degree in public policy from Harvard. He served for six years as the senior economic adviser to President George W. Bush. In addition to doing some TV commentary, he has started his own blog, KeithHennessey.com.

With all of his White House experience, Mr. Hennessey is able to provide the clearest analysis I have found thus far of what to expect from a win by Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special Senate race today. In a series of four clearly written posts, he walks the reader through a number of different scenarios.

The first three posts were written over three days ago, when it appeared that the Coakley-Brown race might be closer than it now almost certainly will prove to be. In the first post, he explains the likely effects of a Brown win from three different angles. Procedurally, he says, it will have the least impact: it will give the Republicans 41 votes in the Senate, which, he says, will be enough "to obstruct but not kill a bill." The Democrats will still have options to proceed with their health care proposal even without two votes from Massachusetts in the Senate -- and his other posts explain just why this is.

With the second angle he analyzes -- vote-counting by the Democrat House and Senate leaders -- a Brown win will have much more of an impact, because the degree to which House and Senate Democrats up for re-election could be scared off the bandwagon will have much to do with Brown's margin of victory. If he just squeaks by, the dislocating effect will be probably quite small, and Reid and Pelosi will probably be able to hang on to their majorities. But if Brown chalks up a big win, it will be a lot harder for Reid and Pelosi to keep their flocks from bolting the fold.

The third angle from which he looks at the effect of a win by Brown is (to me) the most fascinating: he calls it "the potential blowback to the procedural response." Here he assesses the impact of a Brown victory on the various procedural strategies available to the Democrats to push their legislation through Congress. Some of those strategies require much more time; some much less. If Brown wins heavily, watch for Pelosi and Reid to try to speed up the process as much as possible. (The result could also have an impact on President Obama's future Supreme Court appointments, as the SCOTUS blog hypothesizes here.)

We are already, as I write this before the polls close in Massachusetts, seeing evidence of such speeding up in response to the projected Coakley loss. The White House has now announced that the State of the Union address will be moved up to the 27th, much earlier than had previously been expected. The reason is so that President Obama and his teleprompter can bring maximum pressure to bear on the House Democrats to pass the Senate bill before Scott Brown can even be sworn in to the Senate. (Massachusetts law requires the Secretary of State to take at least ten days before certifying the result. And as I write, the Coakley camp has already announced plans to challenge the result on grounds of election "irregularities", in the manner of Al Franken. The result there, as you may recall, was to delay the announcement of the final result by months. Watch for them to try to delay things in this manner even if Brown wins by a huge margin. [UPDATE: Coakley has now conceded the race, so if there is going to be any attempt to delay Brown's functioning as a United States Senator, it will come from others in the Democratic Party, not Martha Coakley. Evidently there is not as uniform a strategy as appeared from the moment the first complaints were lodged -- or else, the election was not close enough to allow the mathematical possibility of a win via a "recount".]

The procedural options now open to Pelosi and Reid are where the traps and pitfalls lie, and where the strategy adopted is absolutely crucial. Keith Hennessey lays out four such options in his second post, and describes a much more unusual fifth option in a post put up just yesterday. This is where Mr. Hennessey shows his strengths. He lays out the procedural complexities of the various options with practiced ease, and after you study his posts carefully, you will be as well-informed as anyone in Congress about what could happen next. His original third post gives his initial predictions of how likely it is for a bill to pass under the different scenarios he analyzes. The numbers are no longer as relevant, since he revised them in his fourth post in light of the increasing prospects of a significant victory for Brown. But the post serves to walk you through a Bayesian probability analysis of likely outcomes, just as the professionals do it. Plug in your own estimations, do the math, make your own predictions, and see how much changing your guesses changes the predicted outcomes. It is great fun (for those with any inclination to such things).

Hennessey's bottom line is this: a substantial Brown victory now raises to 55% the likelihood that the coalitions behind a health care bill will crash (where before he had it at just 45%, when the race appeared to be closer). The Democrats' quickest way to get their health care -- the Senate-passed version -- would be for the House to jettison all of its individual objections to the Senate's bill, and adopt it without changing one comma. Then the bill would go straight to President Obama, and would be signed into law without ever having to go back to the Senate.

Such a scenario could take place before our eyes next week -- if Speaker Pelosi and President Obama can bring their muscle to bear on individual House members. (Hennessey gives this strategy a 30% shot. All of his other scenarios are much more complicated, take much more time, and hence have a much lower probability of success.) That is why the President has moved up his State of the Nation address, and that is why all eyes will be on Speaker Pelosi as soon as the preliminary results are announced. [UPDATE 01/21/2010: It looks as though Speaker Pelosi was told in no uncertain terms by her caucus that the Senate version of health care would never pass the House in its current form. And, she seems to signal that it will be quite a while before any form of health care reform gets through Congress as a whole. Thus Mr. Hennessey's call was right on the money.]

Isn't it fascinating that a race for a seat in the Senate has the net result of putting maximum pressure on the House? But that's politics for you, as Mr. Hennessey explains so well.

I am going to put a regular link to Mr. Hennessey's blog in the roll at the right. I think he will be well worth following in the coming months.

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