Before and after the House of Representatives' historic vote on health-care reform, one of the more interesting debates in Washington involved not the package itself, but how it came to a vote. Do Americans care about a congressional process that even President Obama labeled "ugly," or will they - as the Democratic leadership hopes - focus on the substance of what the House passed?Like so many "either/or" questions that get kicked around wherever the nation's political class likes to gather, the answer is undoubtedly "both." Those who believe that Americans don't notice or don't care about how things get done are deluding themselves; those who are pinning their electoral hopes on widespread disgust with horse-trading and arm-twisting forget the power of enacting legislation that will change the lives of many millions of people. Members of Congress often argue - in the recent past, it has come up especially when attention turns to ethics reform - that voters are far more focused on policy than they are on process. But long before the health-care debate, it was clear this just wasn't so. Extensive polling and interviews during the 1990s by two University of Nebraska political scientists registered great interest in, and concern about, how Congress conducts its business. In particular, this work found, people wanted the legislative process to be fair, and they wanted all concerned to play by the rules; they were especially leery of any tilt in favor of lobbyists or members of Congress looking out primarily for themselves. This basic American value of fairness came back to burn the Democratic leadership earlier this year after details emerged of the deal it struck with Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska to secure his vote on the Senate version of health care - federal funding for the cost of Medicaid expansion in Nebraska. The so-called "Cornhusker Kickback" became an emblem of the sort of special pleading Americans mistrust, and a barrier even among Democrats to passage of the measure in the House. It's little wonder that removing it was a key part of what the House wanted in the package of changes it sent to the Senate for approval. The argument gets significantly more convoluted when it turns to the lead-up to the recent House vote. The issues that exercised those inside the Beltway - "deem and pass," "self-executing rules," "reconciliation," "CBO scores" - are hard to understand in the first place, and even harder to sort through when it's clear that both parties are happy to use any parliamentary maneuver they can find when they're in power, and equally happy to excoriate the same maneuver when they're in the minority. They do this because, from the leadership's perspective, results matter most. This is true for many Americans, as well. The scenes of celebration on Capitol Hill after health-care reform passed, and at the White House signing ceremony a couple of days later, were a reminder that in the end this was about far more than simple process; it was about a profound change to national policy. On an issue this far-reaching and complex, with the nation as a whole so divided and Republicans so united in their determination not to give Democrats any hint of bipartisan support, cutting some corners had obvious appeal. There, of course, lies the rub. Over the last few decades on Capitol Hill, expediency has often trumped by-the-book procedure. This is why the budget process is broken; massive "omnibus" bills are the norm now, not the exception; and regular conference committees are mostly a memory. Yet congressional procedures did not develop because Capitol Hill goody-goodies thought they'd be nice; they developed over many years because Congress recognized that results are not the only thing that matters - so do deliberation and fairness. Our representative democracy rests on the promise that alternative proposals will get careful scrutiny and all voices will have a chance to be considered, not just those of the majority. Americans understand this at a gut level; this is why they care as much about how Congress works as they do that it does work. Democracy, in other words, is as much about process - how we go about resolving our differences and crafting policy - as it is about results. Pursuing good process is not easy. It takes time, effort, and a huge amount of energy. Sometimes, congressional leaders believe they can't get what they want by adhering to it. That's understandable, but they shouldn't be under any illusion that people don't care - or that there's no cost to the values Congress is supposed to embody. You can get what you want by sidestepping fairness and good process, but the victory carries a price: it erodes the integrity of the institution and the deliberative process that lies at the heart of what Congress is all about. Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
********** Published: April 23, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 1