Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What's negotiable in the non-conference conference? (And how do we get in?)

By the Daily Kos' David Waldman Daily Kos

As we were reminded yesterday, it's looking increasingly likely that the Congress will wrap up its work on the health insurance reform bill without a formal conference.

Opinions might perhaps differ as to whether and how this strategic choice will affect progressive leverage in proposing "fixes" to the bill in its final stages. Some see the use of the informal process as designed to shut out progressive voices from the negotiations, but I'd say it's at least a wash in that respect. The most likely House conferees would certainly have included the chairs of the committees of jurisdiction -- Henry Waxman (D-CA-30), Charlie Rangel (D-NY-15) and George Miller (D-CA-01) -- and those three can fairly be said to be well attuned to the progressive viewpoint, even if they don't necessarily view their roles in the negotiations as that of progressive spokespeople. And really, though minority party voices are structurally impaired in formal conferences anyway, the informal negotiations probably won't include their voices at all, which theoretically could give progressives additional advantage.

There's really very little reason to include minority party voices at all, given that they haven't provided a single vote for either version of the bill -- Joseph Cao (R-LA-02) excepted. Yes, it's a nice nod to formality. And yes, Democrats would doubtless be outraged if they were excluded by a Republican majority (as they were from the negotiations on the bill creating Medicare Part D in 2003). But since conferees are, according to the rules, appointed in such numbers as would have rendered any party unanimously opposed to the passage of the bill voiceless in any case, it doesn't make much difference except as a talking point.

As for the reality of whether or not progressives will actually enjoy any additional advantage from the exclusion of Republicans from the negotiations, I think it most likely that the scope of issues open to serious negotiation is probably pretty narrow, and won't include some of the most hotly contested issues at all, such as the controversial provisions dealing with abortion coverage. The Senate hostage takers have hung their hats on those particular items, and have made their threats known. The House is not likely to risk much in tinkering on them, including even reproductive rights champions like Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03), who outlined for the Huffington Post a few days ago the precarious situation pro-choice advocates find themselves in.

But the bicameral leadership and even the Senate hostage takers know full well that while their more liberal colleagues may be willing to swallow their demands for the narrow purpose of passing this bill, any great triumph in the headlines for the hostage takers will likely come with some face-saving price extracted for the heartburn of rolling over. And that presents progressives with an opportunity, if they're interested in taking it.

In all likelihood, the House committee chairs participating in the negotiations already have a list of small bore or otherwise under-the-radar items they'd like to see changed in the final product. The kind of policy minutia that escape the notice of more casual observers, but are known to insiders to perhaps be able to make a real impact where the rubber meets the road. These are the sorts of things committee staffers -- and highly-attuned lobbyists -- are aware of as a consequence of their daily work in the weeds of such bills (indeed, they often come to the attention of knowledgeable but harried staffers through the intervention of lobbyists), and hopefully they're well-armed for the mission of demanding a generous raft of such items as partial payment for the surrender forced on them by the hostage takers. In fact, I wouldn't be all that surprised given how much even the hostage takers are now invested in the passage of the bill, if progressives weren't able to wrest free some additional concessions in the subsidy regime and the excise tax, even at the expense of increasing bill's cost estimates. At this late date and after these exhaustive battles, even fiscal hawks might be excused if they let the line slacken a bit, rather than swim upstream against the tide building for passage.

Hopefully some of the more savvy progressive-minded Members are working these angles in the background. From the perspective of the netroots, however, it's necessarily a little disheartening to have to depend on little more than such hopes in the final stages. But though we've made what I like to think of as great strides in our abilities to understand and influence the earlier stages of the legislative process, the latter stages still belong to the closed world of Members, staffers and lobbyists. Our infrastructure hasn't developed to the point where we're able to put policy and procedural experts in the room (or at least on the phones) with the staffers handling the last minute changes and rewrites. There are most certainly progressive-minded experts on hand, or at least what we might consider "white hat" lobbyists. But as for their operating in a more open, more accountable environment, driven by two-way communications, that's still a long way off.

It's not impossible. It was probably once considered pretty unlikely that any significant portion of the netroots would take the time to learn enough procedure to improve their odds as activists, but we've had some success there. The expertise and the personnel needed to give the netroots a better shot at understanding and competing in that part of the process now mostly closed to them (but yet the playground of lobbyists) do exist. They just have never yet been marshaled to that purpose. But there's always tomorrow.