It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which political procedures determine political results. Although they are poorly understood and often hopelessly arcane (the "how a bill becomes a law" chart that high schoolers learn are is only the tip of the iceberg), the procedure by which a policy is considered and implemented profoundly affects the resulting law or policy. Political procedures are the rules of the game. Many of the most skilled lawmakers are not so much policy wonks as experts in the procedure of their respective legislative body--they know how to work the process to get the results they want, and they recognize the limits that are imposed from the very beginning.
Three recent procedural developments have taken place in the last week, two with significant implications for health care reform and one for parity:
- On April 28, long-time senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania switched his party identification from Republican to Democrat, citing the right-ward drift of the Republican Party (Specter is a centrist on many issues) and the primary challenge he faced from former GOP congressman Pat Toomey in 2010. Specter's defection gave the Democrats 59 of the 100 Senate seats. The U.S. Senate is a "supermajoritarian" body, in which 60 votes are required to pass most legislation (60 votes are not needed to pass a bill per se, but that's the minimum number of votes needed to stop a filibuster, a procedural device that allows a group of Senators to halt Senate business indefinitely--in practice, bills with less than 60 supporters are often not even brought up for a vote). In other words, the Democrats are now only one vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority (including non-Democrats who caucus with the Dems, Joe Lieberman of Conn. and Bernie Sanders of Vt.). But the Senate is still missing one member from Minnesota--former comedian and Democrat Al Franken leads incumbent Republican Norm Coleman by about 300 votes in the last still-undecided election from November 2008. Coleman's suffered a string of legal defeats that make it unlikely he will prevail in the recount, though it's not clear how long he will be able to postpone Franken's seating.
In any case, Specter's decision to join the Democrats makes it far easier for the Democrats to set the legislative agenda for an issue like health care reform. It reduces--though doesn't eliminate--the incentive for Democratic leaders to accede to Republicans' proposals. It increases the chance of a broader, more ambitious health care reform bill passing Congress.