Monday, July 6, 2009

A Washington Fable

I really want to see a healthy debate about Health Care reform. Don't you?

But first, I want to mention the treat at the end of this post: A Washington Fable. I'm not Aesop, but I hope you'll enjoy it.

On that note, I recently came across an article,here,, about a movement to slow the consideration of any health care bill long enough for legislators and Americans to have access and read it.

Why stop with health care? The article implies that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is intentionally pushing the health care bill through so fast that legislators won't have time to read it. In reality, legislators don't have time to read many of the bills they ultimately vote on. This isn't a Nancy Pelosi special. This is simply THE way of doing business in Washington and state houses all over the land. Once upon a time, as a new lobbyist, I learned there is no way legislators have enough time to read, fully digest, educate themselves, etc, on every one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of bills that cross their desk each year. Not to mention the multiple negotiated and redrafted versions of those same bills as they go through the system.

How do legislators deal with this massive mound of paper? Via heuristic (short cut) of one sort or another. The most common of these: 1) A few legislators become experts in a subject; other legislators look to them for guidance. 2) Organizations review/analyze legislation; Legislators take their cues from organizations they trust. 3) Polling data showing voter opinion. 4) Committees and subcommittees delve deeply into individual bills, or are supposed to.

Actually, as an aside, we all use heuristics in our lives. There is no way we can be up to speed on every issue, all the time. Say you're interested in the environment - you probably wouldn't be reading this if you aren't - you can't personally know everything there is to know about carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses, carbon trading programs, windmill and solar energy sources, water and air pollution sources, natural resource conservation efforts, environmental justice issues, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. When one of these issues makes it onto the political agenda, and people are pushing to legislate about it, what do you use to get educated and to decide where you stand? A heuristic! No way most people can do all that research, understand all that science. You probably look at something written by one of your trusted sources - someone whose opinion and point of view generally meshes with your own, whom you expect to be more knowledgable than you about the subject matter. Maybe even ME! (That may be a mistake!)

So, where am I going with this? I agree, it would be prudent for our legislators to read and become knowledgable on each piece of legislation - after all, if they pass something that will impact our lives and our pocketbooks, shouldn't they have an obligation to understand what they're foisting on us?

And yet, I don't know how it would be humanly possible, given the very big, very diverse country that we are, and the enormous amount of legislation offered up each year. And I DO want a VERY healthy debate about the Health Care bill - oh, and the Energy bill, education, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, gun registration, immigration policy and every other pressing problem! But I cannot imagine what havoc it would cause to our system to do what seems so obviously like "the right thing" and hold up every bill until every legislator has had a chance to read every piece of paper, and every citizen has at least been given the same opportunity to read it all and put their two cents worth in. Washington is already slow enough, don't you think? We'd never get anything done. Although, some may say that's the better outcome.

So, what's the answer? If we're too big a country to engage in the fullness of debate envisioned by our forefathers, but lack of debate means that lobbyists are basically the main influencing factor, what impact does that have on public policies and programs? Maybe Congress needs to revisit the way Congress looks at all legislation and revamp the entire system. Or maybe social networking like blogging, facebook, twitter etc, can change the avenues for participation in major ways, but that's another blog altogether. What do you think?

A Washington Fable

Once upon a time, Congress was charged with creating a totally new animal - a political animal. Before long, Washington was abuzz with talk about what qualities and characteristics would be most important for a political animal. Phones and fax lines and email boxes were lit up with calls and notes from constituents and campaign donors pushing their opinions, and lobbyists were jostling for presence in such competitive abundance that legislators started leaving by the back stairway to avoid their sales pitches. After awhile the legislators formed opinion groups around the strongest of their ideas. Several such groups vied for supremacy, each wanting the new political animal to be modeled after a particular existing animal. One bunch argued that the animal would be well-served if it were giraffe-like, with long legs and neck to rise above the crowd and reach high places. A second faction spoke on behalf of the massive, armored body of a rhino, the better to withstand and survive whatever attacks it was sure to get from hords of other animals. A third crowd praised the virtues of the majestic lion, full of pride and integrity and leadership ability. A particularly powerful group (they were connected to a large body of politically active citizens who could be mobilized on a dime) thought the animal ought to imitate the pelican, because, it said, pelicans are particularly protective of their progeny, and that would ensure the beast's long-term political survival and influence. These were the loudest voices, but there were others: A small but eloquent quorum sang for an elephant (big ears for full information gathering and a long nose for reaching into other people's business), one noisy legislator pushed for a replica of the pig (able to squeal loudly for attention, breaking through the noisy drone of political drudgery), and a few other ideas from random pairs of legislators whose votes might be needed for something else, so their thoughts could not be ignored.

Therefore, Congress, ever a body of compromise, built in its wisdom an animal with the legs and neck of a giraffe, the colossal body of a rhino, the full-maned head of the lion, the beak of the pelican, the ears of an elephant, the tail of the pig, and a few other adjustments to appease the necessary folks.

The poor thing, set free to do its business, was soon tripping and falling all over itself. The constituents, campaign donors and lobbyists scratched their heads, said, "well, what did you expect of Congress?" and took to fighting about whether we should get rid of the animal all together, or simply have it altered.

The moral of the story: Policy is supposed to solve social problems. Too much compromise may get the political vote done, but might result in a public program that doesn't function well in reality. That's what we do when we try to put too many pieces together to please everyone, call it "policy" and then try to watch it walk.


  1. Sandy I work in a political environment and I must say this article is fabulous! So true.



  2. Not too long ago my husband was telling me over dinner how he was annoyed by some comments Harry Reid made. Apparently Reid said that bipartisan health care reform would really only require a couple of Republican defectors. My husband objected to this as a definition of genuine bipartisanship. Since I didn't hear Reid's comments myself, I couldn't really form an opinion on what he did or didn't mean, but here's what I think about bipartisanship and health care reform:

    I really don't want the Democrats to try to compromise. I really don't care if they ram through every liberal scheme they can manage to draft as legislation. I don't feel compelled to endorse bipartisanship after we "liberals" have been taking it up the tailpipe for almost a full decade. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Turnabout is fair play. Whatever you call it, the Republicans have it coming, and I'm tired of pretending I feel less angry or more reasonable.

    So, I appreciated your Washington fable a great deal. This might be one of those times when one side just has to dominate in order to give an idea a legitimate try.

    I've bookmarked your blog now, for future edification. :)