Julian Zelizer: Watching Congress Make Sausages

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is “Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security — From World War II to the War on Terrorism” (Basic Books, 2010).]

All eyes are on Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She must persuade House Democrats to vote for the Senate health care bill with no changes. They must take it on faith that the upper chamber will add sought-after provisions using reconciliation. If Pelosi cannot make a deal, health care reform will fail.

To unite Democrats, most observers expect that Pelosi will have to cut deals the old-fashioned way — using pork. Critics warn that this could undermine support for reform — and for Pelosi. Indeed, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rushed through a series of agreements that included exempting Nebraska from paying Medicaid increases (for Sen. Ben Nelson) and giving $300 million in Medicaid funding to Louisiana (for Sen. Mary Landrieu), Republicans lambasted them as the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase.”...

In 1957, for example, Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson ushered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate. The first major civil rights bill since Reconstruction, the measure strengthened federal voting rights protections. Most important, it laid the groundwork for bolder legislation in the 1960s. “Once you break the virginity,” Johnson predicted, “it’ll be easier next time.”...

To overcome...challenges, Johnson persuaded a group of western Democrats to support a watered-down compromise that some Southerners were willing to live with (by not filibustering). In exchange, Johnson corralled Southern votes for the construction of a federal dam in Hells Canyon, between Idaho and Oregon. With this deal in place, the bill passed....

Legislators need pork to make things happen, especially in an age when chronic obstruction has so weakened the legislative process that policy breakthroughs are almost impossible. This does not excuse all kinds of deal making, nor should we ignore that deals sometimes go too far.

But we must also acknowledge that legislative coalitions are extraordinarily difficult to achieve. It is unrealistic to expect that legislative leaders won’t use one of the few tools at their disposal to get things done.

In the coming days, Pelosi might well use this tool if she wants to bring the health care negotiations to a successful conclusion.

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