Here's to backroom deals, and the pols who make them

Congressional holdouts weren't really pondering the merits of the bill at the last minute -- and that's just fine

By Jonathan Bernstein
March 24, 2010 5:25PM (UTC)
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There are, of course, a number of behind-the-scenes stories being reported this week about just how the health care reform got done.  Here's a good one about Speaker Nancy Pelosi's efforts to lobby members; here's a good one about Pelosi standing up to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel after the Massachusetts Senate special election.

First, I'm glad I read these stories, and I don't want to knock the reporters, who I think in both of the cases I cite did a good job.  Second, nothing I say in this item is intended to knock down Pelosi, who as I've said is perhaps the best of the modern speakers, and certainly the best outside of Tip O'Neill.


However, I'd caution everyone to read these and other similar stories with a heavy dose of skepticism.  Politicians -- brace yourself -- don't always tell the truth! They try to make themselves look good!  Sometimes, you can see it right in the story:

Baird made clear to leaders early on that they should neither take his vote for granted nor bother whipping him, since he would be making up his mind based on his own analysis of the final bill text and its budget impact. "Everybody knew in my case -- no point in cajoling me. They were likely to get punched in the mouth if they said, 'You’re not running,'" he said. "You say that to me, you insult me personally, because it implies all I care about is election."

The Evergreen State Democrat nevertheless got the full treatment from the White House: a personal meeting with President Barack Obama and talks with Vice President Joseph Biden and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former governor of Washington. On Sunday morning -- after staying up until midnight on Saturday reading the final analysis from the Congressional Budget Office -- Baird said he called Obama budget chief Peter Orszag and went through it "point by point," before talking it over some more with Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), a top health care adviser to Pelosi. "I felt at the end, I’d done my due diligence," Baird said.

Obama, Biden, Locke, Orszag, Andrews -- that's a lot of insults!  No wonder he -- oh, wait, maybe he can be cajoled.

When you read these stories, then, think about who is talking to reporters, and what they want reporters to hear.  No member of Congress wants to admit that his or her vote was only available to the speaker if she needed it.  Yet it is very likely that in fact a whole lot of Democratic members of Congress preferred, as some of us have been saying for months, for the bill to pass without their votes. (I'm remembering a nice Karen Tumulty post, which I mention just to point out that working reporters know this stuff just as well as more distant observers.  At least the good ones do). 


Most of what happened in the last week or two wasn't about members carefully studying the bill to decide if they thought it was a good idea or not, whatever they say now; it was about making a political decision, and about (for Pelosi and President Obama) coordinating those decisions. Oh, and all those stories about how everyone's a hero but Rahm Emanuel?  Maybe they're true. But it's also the case that the White House staff, and especially the Chief of Staff, are really convenient scapegoats. Their job is to make the politicians look good -- so when you read a story about Rahm Emanuel that makes a politician look good, well, maybe it's true, or maybe he's just very good at his job.

One more thing: I'm for all of this!  I'm not complaining about it. I like politicians, and I think it's perfectly fine for them to make themselves look like Serious Statesmen if they want, or whatever.  Virtually no one (other than me) likes grubby, vote-mongering pols, and so part of the job of grubby, vote-mongering pols is to pretend to be something else.  That, oddly enough, is good representation, too.  I'm just saying that when you read an "inside" account that "reveals" that politicians are doing things that make them look good to be hesitant to treat them as strong evidence for anything.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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Healthcare Reform Rahm Emanuel U.s. House Of Representatives