Stories by Steve Bell

Steve Bell is former Staff Director of the Senate Budget Committee, a former managing director at Salomon Brothers, and now Senior Director on Economic Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Governing for Dummies

February 17th, 2010 at 12:24 pm 4 Comments

Set aside the immediate political implications, prescription the announcement that Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana will not seek re-election reveals a kind of ignorance of the legislative process and history that is startling.

Start with this general rule, discount former governors find the federal Congress processes too slow, too cumbersome, with too much sharing of credit. Former governors become frustrated very quickly in the Senate.

But, a larger question emerges from the Bayh announcement—if it isn’t working, then what are you going to do about it?

We have had partisan sniping, gridlock, and fighting since parties started in this country. Fortunately, except for the extraordinary example of the Civil War, America has solved this inherent political conflict through peaceful, if sometimes deadly slow, law making

For some reason, I am reminded of the quote: “The wheels of God’s justice move slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.” Yes, the Congress can be frustrating and, as I have noted often before, it was intended by our Founding Fathers to move slowly. Quick, executive-like action usually leads to serious unintended consequences, and, this is serious business, this governing of a great nation. We need to hear every side and every argument about important legislative proposals.

The solution achieved by the great legislators of the past was very simple and very hard—go find someone on the other side of the aisle, and discover those things upon which you agree. When you have found a like-minded ally on the other side, then sit down and draft principles and then legislation.

You take this legislation to like-minded “renegades” who want similar legislation, and expand your alliance. Then, you go to the Committee Chair, unless you happen to be the Chair and are working with the Ranking Minority Member, and say, “Hey, Jane and I have this idea. We are serious.”

The fact that you have done all this will transmit to the caucuses more quickly than email. The Majority and Minority Leaders may well object, and the a majority of the caucuses, following the tribal instinct, will probably call you “dis-loyal, not a team player, blah, blah, blah.”

Now the hard part comes in—you and your allies have to look party leaders in the eyeball and say, “Well, we are going to do this anyway.”

That is what Senators Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley did last week on their tax/jobs bill. That is what John Kerry and Lindsay Graham are trying to do with climate change legislation. It’s what could have been done on health care reform, if the far left wing of the Democratic Party hadn’t been given the task of writing the first draft of the legislation.

Things don’t work as quickly as some Senators want. They decide to take the ball and go home. A far more useful choice is to roll up their collective sleeves and take the literal years that the legislative process demands.

Gridlock exists only as long as individual Members lack the courage and the foresight to take on their own caucuses and leadership.

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Members of both parties are doing so. Good, we will get better cooks in the future, perhaps.

Developing a Centrist Consensus is Critical

February 9th, 2010 at 1:02 pm 1 Comment

American public opinion in almost every way we can measure bunches up toward the moderate middle. Yet increasingly the tone of politics seems to invite and reward extremism. FrumForum examines whether it has to be so. We have asked a range of individuals who identify themselves as centrists (or are so identified by others) some questions about their politics.


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1) Would it be possible or desirable to create a broad consensus on the basics of public policy, ed either domestic or international?

A broad consensus on “the basics of public policy” remains desirable and eventually will become critical.  As the nation faces the consequences of its domestic spending policies, treatment developed during the past many decades, a centrist-driven effort to fundamentally reform entitlement spending and the tax code is the only answer to a growing domestic and international threat.  Agreeing on what international situations demand United States military involvement also requires a centrist consensus.



2) On which domestic issues and international issues do people with whom you generally agree take positions that trouble you?

The emphasis on “social issues”—abortion, values training, sexual policies—that many of my colleagues have seems out of place in a national government dedicated to maximum freedom for the greatest number of people.  The desire to interfere in the private choices by individuals, and measuring the “goodness” of others by their choices seems the height of arrogance and contrary to the vision of the Founding Fathers.



3) On which domestic issues and international issues do people with whom you generally disagree take positions that you welcome?

Emphasizing more environmental considerations in public policy, federal assistance for the truly impoverished, and improved educational standards are issues on which I generally agree with those who are on the opposite side of many other issues I consider important.



4) Which issues are so important to you that you cannot envision compromising on them?

Almost none, if the proposals from the other side are reasonable and consistent with both personal freedom and national security



5) Conversely have your political adversaries ever made arguments so compelling that they made you reconsider or revise long-held positions?

I have few rigidly-held views that flow from public policy.



6) How can civility be brought back to political discourse?

Reduce the time allowed for campaigning, as the British do;  work hard at forming centrist groups, like the bi-partisan Chiefs of Staff meetings established in the Senate several years ago; having the personal courage to resist the “tribal” pull of colleagues in either party caucus.


Click here to read other contributions to this symposium.

Obama Lacking the “Vision Thing”

January 28th, 2010 at 10:31 pm 2 Comments

At some point in the George W. Bush Presidency, salve the majority of American citizens simply stopped listening to the President.

That seemed to have begun early in the second Bush term, when the President spoke and seemed bored because he knew his audience was bored.

President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night may be the first sign that Americans may have begun to tune his words out.

He repeated the tired old theme, “It’s all Bush’s fault.”  He called for bipartisanship at the same time he jabbed Republicans for not doing things his way.  He called for a partial freeze on the very smallest part of the federal budget—non-defense, discretionary domestic spending.  If his freeze really occurs, it will be nothing more than a rounding error in the projected trillion deficit for the next decade.  He called for a joint commission on fiscal reform and deficit reduction, which seems not much more than cover for many Democrats who will be up for re-election this November.

What was glaringly absent was any aggressive new vision for the nation.  In this regard, he seemed to retrogress to the George H.W. Bush “You know, it’s that vision thing” tone.  No specific suggestions on how to forge bi-partisanship on the scarred healthcare bill still pending Congressional action;  no new ideas on climate change or energy policy;  nothing new on the economy, except the “jobs creation” initiative already beginning its Congressional Odyssey; and merely obligatory nods to immigration reform.

The famous former House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “If you can’t beat on big banks and big oil, it must not be America.”  President Obama has revised that slightly — now it’s big health insurance and big banks.  Obama’s bashing banks, financial institutions, health insurance companies, and profits had echoes of an old-fashioned populist anger that periodically roils American politics.

Certainly the speech contained nothing that got to the heart of the President’s political problem — the much-observed revolt of the independent voter.  That creature, under investigation of almost unprecedented intensity by pundits, wants “something.”  The creature isn’t sure what it wants, because it thought it had voted for “change” in 2008.  Now “change” seems to have morphed into a change that the independents don’t want.  What does the independent voter really want?  It kind of reminds me of the age- old question, “What do women really want?”   Politicians seems as mystified on how to make independents happy, just as most men are clueless about women.

In large part, the State of the Union Address captured the present political landscape — attack deficits, but don’t touch my Social Security or Medicare;  create jobs, but make sure you punish those bad banks that lend money to job-creating businesses;  make sure that we insure every citizen, but make sure we don’t increase government intrusion.  The contradictory forces inside America today forced the President to simply punt:  give a speech that limits political damage, and get off stage as quickly as possible.

The President also got a chance to see real fear in the flesh:  literally dozens of endangered Democratic Members of Congress hoping to survive in November.  They listened carefully, hoping that the President would say something and suggest anything, that will change the political tide.

Now there is “change” Congress can really embrace.

Brown Win Would Kill Only Most Viral Form of Obamacare

January 19th, 2010 at 6:00 pm 7 Comments

Aside from temporary paralysis among congressional Democratic leaders, shop what will a victory later today by Scott Brown (R) mean for healthcare reform and the legislative agenda?

The immediate media reaction has been, tadalafil “This will kill the Obama agenda.”

I don’t think that’s right.

First, even if Brown wins, leaving Senate Majority Leader Reid with only 59 aye votes for healthcare reform, we should remember that Sen. Reid has another parliamentary option — budget reconciliation.

I have been mystified for months now, watching the Senate stagger through “regular order,” making the kinds of political deals that enrage voters.  Why doesn’t Reid use reconciliation?

If you believe that the duty of the Majority Leader of any party is to aggressively address the party legislative agenda and the interests of the President, if he is of the same party, then it seems almost mandatory that the Majority Leader use every parliamentary tool at his or her disposal.

Some in the mainstream media have pooh-poohed the idea of using reconciliation from Day One.  The argument, generally goes like this:  if Reid uses reconciliation, then it will forever ruin relationships with Senate Republicans.

I think that’s silly.  Relationships cannot get much worse between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans than they are now.  And, who cares?

Senators from both parties will do what they believe is in their self interest — what will appeal to a sufficient number of voters in their states to ensure the Senator’s re-election.  As the late Sam Rayburn said, not cynically, “The first duty of a Member is to get re-elected.”  After all, the Constitution is based upon the presumption that senators and congressmen will sufficiently mirror the interests, aspirations, and needs of their districts and states, that a majority of those voters will return him or her to office.

After all, that’s the fundamental premise of a representative democracy — elected officials represent the interests of their states and districts.  If not, they get kicked out.

So, after initial anger over the use of reconciliation to pass healthcare reform, Republican senators (like all senators have done since time immemorial) will pursue their interests.  It is the legislative wrestling over conflicting interests that produces legislation of any size or import.

Here’s a thought.

Browns wins.  Reid decides NOT to use reconciliation.  Is healthcare reform dead?

Not at all in my judgment.  What has been killed is a form, a “progressive” form, of the legislation.

Indeed, this would give Reid a chance to really talk with the Grassleys and Enzis of the Republican Senate about “what is possible.”  What a refreshing notion—the art of the possible.

As a start, Democrats could concede on tort reform to some extent, Republicans could concede on across-state-line insurance competition, both sides could forge an agreement on portability, a pool for those who don’t have insurance, broadened ability of “related groups” to get group health insurance, and on a prohibition on insurance denial due to pre-existing condition.

I believe that such a deal — outlined in very rough form here — would probably get 70-80 votes in the Senate.  The 15 “theological” senators from the Progressive Caucus and the 15 on the obdurate right of the Republican caucus would scream.  That would confirm that such a deal is in the interests of most senators and most citizens.

And, it is in the interests of both parties — Republicans can show that they have real legislative ideas and Democrats would show that they can get legislation passed.

That happy sigh you hear is the vast citizenry regaining a little respect for Congress.

The Coming Club for Growth Versus Tea Party Fight

January 14th, 2010 at 4:43 pm 8 Comments

One thing political parties and partisans seem never to learn:  the purer you are, physician the more you lose.

The divisions of Red and Green parties in ancient Rome, where heads literally rolled, have manifested themselves in the blog beheadings by the two greatest proponents of purity in American politics today:  the “progressive” left of the Democratic Party and the “purifier” forces in the Republican Party.  So far, the great achievements of these two forces has been two-fold:  the Progressives have been able to help President Obama’s approval ratings  tank; and, the Republican purists have been able to facilitate the Republican loss of the 23rd House District of New York and help push Sen. Arlen Specter over to the Democratic Party.

But, MoveOn.org and the Club for Growth have so much more work to do.  After all, the theological nature of these two groups demands that they drive out apostasy even if it means that they defeat the very policies they purport to support.

One of the best current examples is Charlie Crist in Florida.  By all accounts, Crist should have as close to a lock  on the next Senate seat from Florida as one can have. But,  fueled by support from the most conservative social and anti-tax elements in the Florida GOP, former Florida State House Speaker Marco Rubio has decided to challenge Crist in the Republican primary.   The first palpable result of this internecine war has been the resignation of Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer last week.  While the resignation emerged from a variety of factors, a major one was the fact that Greer supports Crist.

Adding injury to insult, Crist’s home county Republican Party Executive Committee took a straw poll to see where the GOP activists stood on the race — and Rubio won, 106-54.  Media reports are that Crist is now running a new web video that tries to paint Rubio as a “late-comer” to the true conservative faith.  A  chance exists that the two will scar each other up enough that the Democrats will gain the seat.  Then, both the Club for Growth and the Tea Party activists can claim victory—after all they then would have helped elect someone who will vote against the interests of both groups.

The old cliché is that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.  Expecting a Democratic Senator to pursue the interests of the Club for Growth is a form of insanity.

The facile observation that this is the result of “Tea Party” anger misses a larger historical theme that has roiled the Republican Party for decades — the battle between the Libertarian members (Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan) and what was once called the “Moral Majority” (think Jerry Falwell).   In regional terms, one could say Southwest and West Coast against the Old South and Border states.  Libertarians by and large say, “Do what you want, but don’t scare my horses doing it.”  The social conservatives say, “If you don’t do what I want,  then I will have my horses stomp you.”

If we were to scratch most of the Tea Party protesters, we would probably find just as many libertarians as social conservatives, if not more. Indeed, the battle within the GOP won’t be among  so-called moderates, social conservatives, and populists.  The real battle will be between the pro-Ayn Rand Club for Growth (which supports the right of any banker in New York City to make any amount of money he or she can) and the populist Tea Party gang (which wants to hang every banker in New York City).  The present marriage of convenience between these two forces cannot last.  Can one imagine a true Tea Party member supporting the right of Goldman Sachs’ employees to make as much money as they can, regardless of the consequences to society?  Or the Club for Growth insisting that their members absolutely condemn abortion in any circumstance?

So, Charlie Crist in Florida,and many other conservative, but not theologically pure, Republicans will find themselves caught between these forces in the next 9 months.  Where this leaves the folks who are trying to balance a constructively smaller government with a practical maximum of individual freedom remains unclear.

It does leave immense openings for any number of Republicans—from Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Bob Corker of Tennessee,  Mitt Romney, to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—to forge some form of coalition among the groups based both on fiscal prudence and on personal freedom.

Or, as once was written in this land, the freedom  of  Americans to  pursue life, liberty and happiness.

Don’t Blame the Filibuster

January 8th, 2010 at 3:01 pm 11 Comments

Pleas for Congressional “bi-partisanship”  flood the media marketplace.  Esteemed columnists and think tank analysts call for more bi-partisan agreement on major issues.

Many of these fervent calls identify the need for 60 votes to pass most major bills in the Senate as emblematic of the parliamentary gimmicks that have  clogged Congress’ legislative agenda.

Yet, tadalafil a review of the history of extended debate (the “filibuster” in common parlance) and efforts to contain such debate indicate that the Senate has gradually tightened its restrictions on filibuster.  This history stands despite the greatly expanded use of the filibuster as a routine parliamentary maneuver in the Senate.

When the Senate first convened, sildenafil no restrictions on extended debate existed.  “Cloture,” the formal name for ending a filibuster, was part of a Senate rules change in the early 20th Century.  The Senate rules at the time required two-thirds of Senators “present and voting” to vote to cut off debate on an issue.  If all Senators voted, it would take 67 aye votes to stop a filibuster.

In the 1970s, the Senate again tightened its rules against the filibuster.  The two-thirds requirement was dropped.  In its place the Senate voted that it would take 60 aye votes of Senators “chosen and sworn” to cut off debate.  As a sweetener, the Senate agreed to allow 30 hours of “post-cloture” debate to those engaged in the filibuster.

Should the Senate act once again to make extended debate more difficult?  If so, what reforms might really work to accomplish what the reformers seem to  want — more legislation passed more quickly,  less antagonism among Senators and between the two parties. And is the cloture 60-vote requirement the problem?

Both reform impulses seem to run counter to the notion of the Senate as  the saucer that cools the spilt milk.  In the House of Representatives, the Rules Committee issues the terms and conditions of debate on issues that are to come to the House floor.  That Committee almost always is chosen from among those Members who are most reliably supporters of their party’s leadership.  Thus, free and open debate, without restriction, has become extremely rare in the House.  In short, if you have a majority, you can do what you wish.  That’s how the hot milk found itself in the saucer.

Thomas Jefferson warned more than 200 years ago, “Great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority.”  If that notion still rings true, and I believe it does, then the 60-vote requirement to pass major legislation in the Senate makes eminent sense.

In a further contrarian mode, I believe it is not parliamentary procedure, including the 60-vote requirement, that has clogged the legislative arteries.  Indeed, it is the power of the caucuses of both parties in the Senate that causes an excess of “bad legislative chloresterol.”  The demands of the caucus, playing as they do on the age-old almost tribal question of “are you with us or them, “ constrain bi-partisanship much more than Senate rules.

The Senate cannot keep a Senator from entering the Chamber and voting.  But, party caucuses can, and have, ostracized their maverick members from the important Tuesday policy luncheons within which legislative strategy often solidifies.  While some leeway is accorded members who may face difficult re-election races, that leeway is not absolute.  On some issues, the caucuses simply demand that its members vote “with the leadership” despite any electoral pain it might cause a Member — and, notwithstanding any legitimate policy objections a Member might have.

Thus, Senate  Majority Leader Harry Reid found his most intractable  problems during the healthcare reform debate within his own party caucus, not with the 40 Republican Members of the Senate.  Those who “erred” from the party line have been given many labels, many of them not fit for a family publication, both publicly and privately.  To most outside observers, it seemed inconceivable that the 60 Democrats couldn’t pass fairly easily the healthcare reform bill.  To insiders, those who have worked on Senate staff and have had to field the thousands of emails, letters, phone calls, and visits by angry constituents, such a dilemma seemed inevitable.  Cloture had nothing to do with the problem — demands for absolute party line behavior caused it.

I know of no solution to that strong and primal appeal to “loyalty” to the group, to the “us or them” instinct.

To get back to the cloture, 60-vote question, one signal bill in 2005 shows how to get bi-partisanship AND avoid cloture.  In 2005 the House and Senate passed major energy bills.  In large part passage came in the Senate because of the personal courage of then-Minority Member Sen. Jeff Bingaman and then-Chairman Sen. Pete Domenici.  They started with a talk between the two of them.  They then went back to their Energy Committee colleagues and persuaded a bi-partisan majority.  They then briefed their leadership on the proposed document.  The left in the Democratic Party and the right in the Republican Party had strong objections.  But, Domenici and Bingaman, by starting apart from party platforms or caucus demands, and working outward were able to pass a major bill.  They achieved the same result with the Energy Policy Act of 2007, this time with Bingaman as Chairman and Domenici as Ranking Minority Member.

All this came after a painful Senate spectacle in 2003, when, as Domenici admitted later, Republicans consciously barred true Democratic participation and tried to pass a Republican only energy bill.  Not incidentally, the 2003 effort could not get 60 votes and failed.

As we used to say in high school geometry, quod erat demonstrandum.  Restrict cloture further and undermine the Senate’s role as a calming legislative force.  Reduce the power of the caucuses and get more bi-partisan, broadly-supported policy.  Or, in the jargon of the day, bottom-up legislation has a much better chance than top-down.