The Folly of Early Commitment in Washington
As one who studies behavior for a living, I couldn’t help analyzing last week’s “horse-trading” in the Senate around the health care reform bill. Do the leaders in Congress ever concern themselves with long-term consequences of their actions or is it that they just don’t understand the laws of behavior? I think it is the latter because they think they are considering the long-term consequences, especially Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska who bargained his vote for a permanent dispensation for the Medicaid program in his state. So let’s consider the laws of behavior as they relate to recent behavior in Washington.
The behavior is, “I am not going to vote for this bill as it currently stands.” The consequence is millions of dollars for his/her state. The laws of behavior predict more of that behavior in the future. Will it be harder or easier to pass future legislation because of such inappropriate rewards? You can bet that it will be harder. Of the several Senators who were reluctant to vote for the bill, as far as I have been able to determine, all of them were paid to vote for it in the end. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana reportedly received $300 million in Medicaid subsidies for her state in what has been called by some, “the New Louisiana purchase.” Senator Nelson reportedly received a permanent exemption for Nebraska from increases in Medicaid funding. Interestingly, this was given to the state because Nelson was holding the Democrats hostage over the abortion language in the bill. Personally, I don’t get it. He was so concerned about the abortion issue that he capitulated when given Medicaid money. Nelson’s response, "I didn't ask for a special favor here, I didn't ask for a carve out" I guess because he didn’t ask for it, it makes it ok. It seems like I remember many bribery cases where the same defense was mounted.
Putting issues of bribery, etc. aside, what is the impact of these decisions on the legislative process? For one thing, it makes the other Senators look weak since they didn’t work as hard for the citizens of their states. The other thing is that it shows them the advantages of holding out. Don’t be surprised if more hold out in the future. If “holding out” is rewarded, you can bet there will be more of it.
Another defense that has been put forth by the leaders in Congress is that “this is the way the legislative process works.” I have news for them. That may be the way that it worked in the past when the “horse-trading” was done in smoked-filled back rooms in secret but with the new media, that can no longer be done. Legislative actions are subject to different consequences now. In the past Nelson’s behavior may not have come to light for months, if ever. Now it is known almost immediately and he is already receiving considerable backlash, even within his state.
The other issue for Nelson is that if he thinks his decision has made him more popular in his state, I think he is in for a surprise. I suspect that most Nebraskans don't really care much about Medicaid because they don't expect to be personally affected by it. Most Nebraskans do care about the character and decisions of their Senator. If he will sell out on one issue, what will it take for him to sell his vote on others?
Behavior is lawful. We know that behavior that is positively reinforced will occur more often. Stay tuned to see what behavior is being positively reinforced. I am confident that Congressional leaders don’t know. However, they won’t be able to keep it a secret because the increases in their behavior will give it away.