The leaders of the House of Representatives plan to address health care through a “deem and pass” strategy. Professor Michael McConnell believes this strategy violates the Constitution. But put that aside for now. Ms. Pelosi has chosen “deem and pass” because, as she said, “people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The “people” in question are House Democrats whose votes are essential to passing the bill. These members fear voters would penalize them for voting for the Senate bill. As the Washington Post put it, “deem and pass” would “enable House Democrats not to be on record directly as supporting the Senate measure.” A House Democrat running in a tough election will be able to deny voting for the Senate bill if it passes into law. We would then have an odd situation in which a bill became law even though only a minority of House members are willing to take responsibility for having supported it. It would be, as it were, a mystery how the bill became law.
This all reminds me of the TARP legislation. In my recent policy analysis of how Congress performed badly in the TARP case, I found that members of both of chambers were concerned mostly with avoiding responsibility for voting for the bailouts. In the tough cases, and probably many others, Congress does what it can to avoid being held accountable.
Many people inside DC will look at “deem and pass” through the lens of political hardball. If Pelosi can pull it off, she will be praised as tough and shrewd, a risk taker who gets her way by any means necessary.
But there is a larger problem here. The willingness and capacity of Congress to shirk responsibility for its acts suggests deep institutional decline and corruption. That decline implicates more than Congress itself. How can representative democracy work if voters cannot hold their representatives accountable?