The 111th Congress Should Have Overreached More

Will Saletan absolutely nails the question of whether it was somehow a “mistake” for Nancy Pelosi to jeopardize a certain number of members of congress’ re-election chances over a health care bill:

A party that loses a House seat can win it back two years later, as Republicans just proved. But a party that loses a legislative fight against a middle-class health care entitlement never restores the old order. Pretty soon, Republicans will be claiming the program as their own. Indeed, one of their favorite arguments against this year’s health care bill was that it would cut funding for Medicare. Now they’re pledging to rescind those cuts. In 30 years, they’ll be accusing Democrats of defunding Obamacare.

Most bills aren’t more important than elections. This one was. Take it from Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. Yesterday, in his election victory speech at the Heritage Foundation, he declared, “Health care was the worst piece of legislation that’s passed during my time in the Senate.” McConnell has been in the Senate for 26 years. He understands the bill’s significance: It’s a huge structural change in the relationship between the public, the economy, and the government.

And I think it’s critically important to understand something about the contours of the choices here. Losing 40 House seats rather than 60 House seats wouldn’t have made the 112th Congress substantially friendly to the progressive agenda. A different tactical choice that completely transformed the political landscape would have been nice. But a different tactical choice that merely reduced the extent of the losses on the margin would have made little difference.


The main thing veterans of the 111th Congress should feel bad about is that they didn’t seize the opportunity to engage in more liberal overreach. Back in March 2009, 8 Senate Democrats signed a letter opposing the inclusion of carbon pricing in reconciliation instructions. Of the 8, zero won re-election in 2010 and three (Byrd, Bayh, Lincoln) won’t be in the 112th Senate anyway. Had there been enough climate hawks in the 111th Senate to push through carbon pricing through reconciliation, the impact on the Democratic Party’s short-term electoral prospects would have been minimal but the impact on the future of the country would have been large.