Congressmen are Not Prisoners

Back in the first Bill Clinton term, the House of Representatives voted in favor of a worthy-but-unpopular plan for a BTU Tax. The idea died in the Senate. And as House Democrats went down to defeat in 1994, many of them felt the sting of attacks on the BTU Tax especially bitterly. It’s one thing to lose thanks to a tough vote. But it’s another thing to lose thanks to a tough vote for something that winds up not happening.

That’s the background for Ezra Klein’s smart post on the heath care prisoner’s dilemma:

Some sources are speculating that the Blue Dogs are getting cold feet as they watch Max Baucus dither. Many of them felt burned by the hard and damaging vote on the cap-and-trade bill, as it looks like nothing will come of it in the Senate. Committing themselves to a health-care bill before the Senate shows its hand carries similar risks, and they’re no longer in a risk-taking mood. The worst outcome for conservative Democrats in the House is that they’re on record voting for a health-care reform bill that dies in the Senate and is judged a catastrophic example of liberal overreach.

The problem, of course, is that the more dissension there is among Democrats in the House, the less pressure there’ll be on the Senate Democrats to make a hard vote on health-care reform. This makes health-care reform something of a prisoner’s dilemma for conservative Democrats. If Blue Dogs in the House and centrists in the Senate both put it on the line to pass the bill, they’re both better off. But if one puts it on the line and the other whiffs, then the other pays the price.


That said, they call it a “prisoner’s dilemma” because the idea is that the players are held incommunicado in separate cells. House and Senate Democrats can all get together in a room and talk this stuff out. So while the dilemma is real, it’s a perfectly surmountable problem. Surmountable, that is, if moderate members in both houses of congress actually want health care reform to pass. If the will isn’t there, then there are plenty of ways — this dilemma is one of them — for indifference to kill reform even while everyone claims to want to see it happen.