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Sununu Doesn't Understand What An Incentive Is

Defeated Republican Senator John E. Sununu takes to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to assail Democrats for planning to pass health care reform through the reconciliation porcess (thus requiring only a majority vote in the Senate) if  they can't agree on a bill with Republicans. Sununu repeats the usual canards that reconciliation is extremely rare:

Over the past 35 years, it has been used only 22 times -- and three of those bills were vetoed. There are good reasons it has been used so rarely. 

Wow, reconciliation is only used two out of every three years! That's... not all that rare for a major bill. Sununu also unfavorably compares Obama with former presidents who didn't need to use wimpy tools like reconciliation:

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton governed effectively by coupling the vision of an outsider with irrepressible self-confidence. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the depth of their insider knowledge to coax the Congress into moving their policies forward. Barack Obama brings neither of these traits to the Oval Office. Misusing reconciliation undermines him on two counts: It shows a lack of confidence in his own ability to pass an agenda using the regular legislative order. And it exposes his limited experience with the history, traditions and temperament of the U.S. Congress.

Of course, the reconciliation process didn't exist in LBJ or Nixon's time. Moreover, it has become necessary because the filibuster has evolved froma  rare protest intoa  routine supermajority requirement:

The most novel part of Sununu's argument is his claim that the threat of using reconciliation removes any incentive for Republicans to negotiate a health care plan with Democrats:

The threat to use reconciliation to drive through dramatic policy changes such as a national health-care program also destroys any incentive for good-faith negotiations over the details between the Democrats and Republicans. The president's message is clear: He wants to include reconciliation as an option in case he doesn't like the way discussions are going.

Why should anyone negotiate with him in good faith with such a threat hanging over the deliberations? Taking a bipartisan approach means committing to working with the other side, not just offering to talk until things don't go your way.

But, uh, why is this so? Democrats are saying they want a health care plan, and their preference is to pass one with GOP support, but they won'tlet the lack thereof prevent a plan from passing. I suppose you could say that's not "a bipartisan approach," in the sense that it doesn' prioritize bipartisanship even to the point of letting health care reform die. But why does it destroy the GOP's incentive to negotiate? Sununu asserts this without explanation, and pretty clearly the truth is just the opposite. Republicans have a much stronger incentive to negotiate if they know a plan is going to pass either way. Indeed, the threat of reconciliation probably increases the chances of a bipartisan health care reform.What it destroys is the chances of a successful filibuster against reform. That's probably what has Sununu upset.

--Jonathan Chait