Against comprehensive reform -- of anything

History shows that piecemeal reform is better than a Big Bang. That goes for most of the Democrats' domestic agenda

Published July 14, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

In its push to solve the long-term problems of U.S. healthcare and energy in only a few months by means of comprehensive reform legislation, the Obama administration and the Democratic majority could be inspired by the story of Henry Clay's success in framing the Compromise of 1850. In the greatest feat of his long career in American politics, the great Kentucky senator put together a comprehensive package of reforms that won bipartisan support, resolved outstanding issues about slavery and the territories annexed from Mexico after the Mexican War of 1846-48, and saved the Union from civil war for a decade.

At least that's how the Compromise of 1850 tends to be remembered. But it's the political equivalent of false memory syndrome. In fact, things didn't work out that way. Clay's original omnibus bill was defeated in the Senate. Clay had a nervous breakdown. Another senator, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (Lincoln's famous rival), broke the omnibus bill into five separate bills. Each of the five bills was passed with a different majority. One of them -- the Fugitive Slave Act, which required all U.S. citizens to assist in the apprehension of runaway slaves -- was a moral and political monstrosity. And a decade later, civil war came anyway.

But there's no need to turn to the 19th century to learn to be cautious about giant, complicated, omnibus pieces of legislation that are supposed to solve multiple problems at the same time and for a long time to come. Our own era offers its own cautionary lessons about "comprehensive reform."

Remember the comprehensive immigration reform of 2006? It was a typical piece of comprehensive legislation designed to solve many problems all at once, from the legalization of illegal immigrants in the U.S. to sweeping reforms of legal immigration categories. As the legislation worked its way through Congress, it got worse and worse, as one lobby after another insisted on particular provisions. The final version would have resembled the definition of a camel as a horse designed by committee, if camels had three heads and legs on only one side.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill, praised by the Democratic leaders of Congress and defended by the mindless partisan progressive echo chamber in the media, was a horror. What should have been a simple, straightforward path to legal status for millions of legal immigrants had morphed into a Kafkaesque system that would require 11 years at a minimum for amnestied illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens. Even worse, at the last minute, the U.S. business community managed to insert a provision creating an entirely new category of "guest workers" -- in reality, indentured servants -- who could be brought in as a scab army to undercut the wages and unionization activities of U.S. citizen-workers and legal immigrants (including amnestied immigrants). At the price of gaining business support, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi agreed to the flooding of the labor market by several hundred thousand of these new business serfs a year.

Fortunately, the immigration reform bill collapsed under its own grotesque complexity. Trying to please every special interest, it alienated enough special interests -- labor on the left, nativists on the right -- that it died for lack of support in Congress.

Will comprehensive energy reform and comprehensive healthcare reform suffer the fate of comprehensive immigration reform? It seems increasingly likely.

The Waxman-Markey comprehensive energy reform bill only narrowly passed in the House, thanks to strong party discipline. It may yet die in the Senate. Euthanasia might be merciful.

Many environmentalists who support the idea of cap and trade are horrified by the Waxman-Markey bill, which grants exemptions to many fossil fuel utilities and pushes compliance dates well into the future. Other critics worry that the system of tradable carbon allowances -- far more complex than those of the sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system that worked well -- will inspire a "green bubble" in which hedge funds and other speculators manipulate carbon prices the way that they created a housing bubble and a tech-stock bubble. A growing number of thoughtful environmentalists like those of the Breakthrough Institute argue that the cap-and-trade policy in any form is doomed to failure by the unwillingness of the U.S. Congress to enact caps that will lead to real pain for consumers and business and by the refusal of China and India to adopt greenhouse gas emissions limits.

But don't let mere reason and facts get in the way of a big omnibus bill, no matter how awful. The discussion of cap and trade has now reached the you're-with-us-or-against-us phase that the discussion of the ill-fated comprehensive immigration bill reached in the fall of 2006. On the progressive side, anyone who raised questions about the giveaways to the Chamber of Commerce in the immigration bill was a bad team player, if not an anti-Latino racist. Likewise, some leading progressive pundits are trying to shut down debate over Waxman-Markey. Channeling Robespierre, Paul Krugman has announced that critics of Waxman-Markey are guilty of "treason to the planet." Presumably the lobbyists who riddled the bill with giveaways to the industries that pay them and the Wall Street speculators salivating at the thought of a subprime carbon market are among the true friends of the earth. 

Critics of comprehensive healthcare legislation are not yet being denounced as traitorous enemies of the people (if not the planet). But that is only because nobody knows what the final legislation will look like. As soon as there is a bill, citoyens, the denunciations of dissenters will begin!

If, that is, there is a bill. Some lawmakers are warning that a comprehensive health reform bill may not be ready by President Obama's deadline of September. (Where in the Constitution is the chief executive empowered to give deadlines to Congress?) The bill may not be ready until December, which in Washington talk can mean spring of next year or never.

Like the comprehensive immigration bill before it, and indeed like the original Compromise of 1850, comprehensive energy reform and comprehensive healthcare reform illustrate the congenital pathologies of omnibus legislation.

Comprehensive reform tries to address too many problems at the same time, instead of addressing particular problems by particular pieces of legislation. Advocates of comprehensive reform often claim that you can't solve one problem in isolation. For example, supporters of comprehensive immigration reform argued that you can't have workplace enforcement and border security without a simultaneous amnesty, because that would create a pool of unemployed illegal immigrants trapped north of the newly controlled U.S.-Mexican border. Similarly, many supporters of comprehensive energy reform argue that you can't have more private R&D for clean energy without simultaneously stimulating demand by means of subsidies to clean energy industries. This is the Fallacy of Holism -- you can't fix anything unless you fix everything at once. The truth is that you can crack down on employers hiring illegal immigrants, even in the absence of an amnesty, and you can massively increase publicly funded clean energy R&D, even in the absence of cap and trade and subsidies to unprofitable renewable energy sources

Comprehensive reform tries to assemble a single majority for a multipurpose bill, instead of assembling different majorities for different bills. This is the lesson to be learned from the failure of Clay and the success of Douglas. If you break up an omnibus bill into pieces, you might be able to pass each piece with its own majority, even though no majority exists for the complex comprehensive reform as a whole.

Comprehensive reform by its very nature shuts out the public. That's because winning the support of the final holdouts in the House or Senate at five minutes to midnight is more important than building broad popular support by public debate and advocacy.

Again and again in so-called comprehensive reform efforts, we have seen truly awful provisions -- the guest-worker provision inserted by the business lobby in the immigration bill, the easily gamed grandfather clauses and low amounts of public sector energy R&D in Waxman-Markey -- buried at the last minute in hundreds or thousands of pages of legislation by congressional leaders who don't want their own constituents to understand the compromises they have made with powerful Washington lobbies. In simpler, single-purpose bills, there is less to hide from the public out of shame and fewer opportunities for politicians beholden to lobbies to extort last-minute concessions.

Comprehensive reform kills the appetite for subsequent reform. Whether it succeeds or fails, comprehensive legislation usually leaves lawmakers so traumatized and embittered that they do not want to address a particular policy area again for years. "Oh, my God -- I don't want to go near that issue again!"

Hasty legislation is usually bad legislation. The question that those of us sympathetic to the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional majority need to ask is: What's the rush? Healthcare and energy policy (and immigration policy, which at some point will need to be addressed again) are long-term issues that we need to think through carefully. President Obama may want to break the record of the most presidential legislative accomplishments in the shortest possible time, before his first-term honeymoon ends, but there is no need for one politician's political calendar to dictate the pace of discussion and legislation about these consequential matters. Well-considered piecemeal reform, not rushed and botched comprehensive reform, is what America needs.

Bismarck said that people should not want to know what goes into the making of laws or sausages. Better a plate of Vienna sausages than one monstrous wiener. 

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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