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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Big Bill, Small Majority

At Politico, Todd Purdum writes of the passage of the Affordable Care Act:
“You reap what you sow,” said Whit Ayres, the veteran Republican pollster. “When you force through a major and very significant change to our economy, and you do it on a pure party-line vote, and at the very end change the rules to cram it through, you simply set up a long-term political battle that will never end.”

Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, offered a less partisan but equally pungent analysis. “The long-term future of bills that have absolutely no minority support and are not popular when passed is not good,” he said. “This law is vulnerable not just for this week, but for the 2014 elections, and if not then, for whenever the minority party does become the majority.”

Yes, the Affordable Care Act was duly passed by both houses of Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Yet even the Volstead Act — which implemented Prohibition under the 18th Amendment — passed the House 287-100 and the Senate on a voice vote in 1919, but was ignored by many governors and mayors, was never accepted by broad segments of the country and was repealed just 14 years later.

The Supreme Court may have ruled 6-3 in Roe v. Wade, but big chunks of the nation’s legislative and political culture were rocked back by the decision’s sweep, and have spent the last 40 years waging a dogged rear-guard action against it. The Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was unanimous, but not until 10 years later, with the overwhelming bipartisan passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, did that ruling really become the law of the land.

No major law of the 20th century — not Medicare, nor the 1957, 1964 and 1965 civil rights and voting rights acts, nor the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act nor Social Security — passed the Congress by anything like the narrow, partisan margin of Obamacare. The Senate approved that 60-39 — a virtual squeaker by that chamber’s modern standards — and the House by just seven votes, 219-212.

Perhaps only the progressive income tax, which the Senate approved by a vote of 44-37 in 1913, had such a narrow margin of support. And, not coincidentally, it is the one measure among all those landmark laws that remains the subject of the liveliest debate a century later.