Reprise: Attention constraints and policy objectives

I’m reprising this post from January on the importance of prioritization and policy formation:

Prioritization will be a key differntiatior of Democratic Presidential and Senate primary candidates. I believe that most Democrats will share significant elements of what is on their top-10 list of areas that need federal government attention in a government that could theoretically have a narrow Democratic trifecta. But the key will be prioritization.

In 2009-2010, the US Senate was able to do the following big things:

  • Confirm two Supreme Court Justices
  • Pass the ACA
  • Pass Dodd-Frank
  • Pass the stimulus (ARRA)

In 2017-2018, the US Senate was able to do the following big things:

  • Pass a huge ass tax cut
  • Confirm two Supreme Court Justices
  • Not pass Repeal and Replace while burning several months of attention on it

Senate floor time is a key constraint.  A very productive Senate might have slots for two big bills, three or four medium actions (such as SCOTUS nominees) and a lot of housekeeping.  A productive Senate is most likely positively correlated with the size of the effective majority.

Right now, there are numerous agenda items that could qualify as a “big” thing from the Democratic/liberal perspective.  The following will be an incomplete list:

  • Healthcare reform
    • Medicare for All?
    • ACA 3.0?
  • Global Warming Policy
  • Voting Rights Act revision
  • Civil Rights Act revision
  • 2 or more SCOTUS confirmations
  • Truth and Reconciliation
  • Constitutional Amendments to make electing a compromised buffoon harder (mandatory disclosure of 14 years of paperwork related to anything authorized by the 16th amendment etc )
  • Immigration and naturalization

Any of these things could easily eat up three months or more of floor time in the Senate.  I’ve listed well over twenty four months of potential floor time activities from an incomplete list if all of these items were considered to be “big” items for the Senate.  That is infeasible as it neglects the basic day to day functioning of the Senate as well.  The Senate still has to approve nominees, it still has to pass appropriations, it still has to make tweaks and changes to the law as circumstances dictate.

So the question will be prioritization.

Candidates are likely to share the same items on a top-10 list but the rank ordering and asset allocation will matter a lot. One candidate might want to spend six months on healthcare again at the cost of doing not much if anything on immigration and naturalization. Another candidate could want to spend a little time on a minimal “fix-it” healthcare bill while spending more time on global warming policy.  Those are all defensible choices.  But the prioritization is very valuable information.

26 replies
  1. 1
    Betty Cracker says:

    I’ve heard two candidates — Warren and Buttigieg — say that safeguarding the right to vote and countering corruption in politics have to be top priorities because all other agenda items depend on democracy functioning without interference. There’s definitely some truth to that.

    New ad from Harris is up in Iowa:

    It seems to suggest that healthcare reform and a middle-class tax cut (funded by repealing Trump’s Donor Relief Act) are top priorities, but it’s a 60-second ad, so who knows? I believe I heard Harris promise to rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one.

  2. 2
    Tim C. says:

    Rejoining the Paris Accord won’t be enough, but it’s a start. We need something like a Manhattan project level effort coordinated with other countries to do anything and everything it takes to halt or mitigate climate change. We also need the Republicans on board for it, I don’t know how we get there, but the situation is looking more and more nightmarish each month.

  3. 3
    Another Scott says:

    Relatedly, Al Franken talks with Andy Slavitt about the 2020 Democratic candidates’ health care plans (54 min). It’s his second interview with Slavitt.

    (I haven’t listened to them yet.)


  4. 4
    Baud says:

    @Betty Cracker:

    I believe I heard Harris promise to rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one.

    That can be done with a stroke of the pen. Doesn’t require legislation.

  5. 5
    Snarki, child of Loki says:

    “Add summary death-penalty provision for violations of Emoluments Clause”

  6. 6
    Richard Guhl says:

    Setting priorities is my concern as well. I worry that our Democratic candidates are over promising what can get done. Unicorn rainbow ponies farrting glitter sound wonderful, but that will only create huge disappointment down the road.
    Besides the Supreme Court, my priorities would be —
    Climate calamity (ocean acidification and deforestation pose the greatest threat)
    Immigration reform
    The left most health care reform

  7. 7
    Baud says:

    @Richard Guhl:

    There’s zero chance people won’t be disappointed in Dems. As soon as Trump is out of sight, out of mind, expect everyone to revert to form.

  8. 8
    kd bart says:

    @Baud: By January 23, 2021, they’ll be a failed presidency article in the NY Times, WSJ or Washington Post

  9. 9
    Richard Guhl says:

    Historically, that’s true. Whether progressives achieve their goals or not, they get hammered in the midterms. The one exception was FDR in 1934 when there was already discernable improvement from the depths of the Great Depression. The ax fell in 1938 when Democrats suffered their worst losses.

  10. 10
    Cacti says:

    1. Amend the Judiciary Act
    2. Add 4 new Justices to SCOTUS

  11. 11
    artem1s says:

    I hope that renewing a 50 state Voter Rights Act can be accompanied by election funding reform (starting with a repeal of Citizen’s United). Both may have to wait until they have appointed 2 additional progressive judges to The Supremes. Yes, additional. RGB cannot be replaced and as long as she is willing to serve her country and is more lucid than Dolt45, she should be on the bench. Nothing in the Constitution that says you can’t have more than 9 Justices. The first Dem candidate who promises to replace a retiring Thomas with one of the Obama’s will get 98% of the AA vote. I say go for it if you dare.

  12. 12

    @artem1s: RGB should have retired in 2013, as well as Breyer if they care about their legacy and are more intelligent about US politics than stoned 19 year olds or New York Times politics and culture columnists.

    Any liberal leaning judge over the age of 75 should resolve to retire as soon as the combination of a liberal president and 51 liberal aligned votes happen in the Senate as a rule going forward.

  13. 13
    Betsy says:

    Wow, this is an amazing statement of political limitations that we almost never see in the media. Thanks for outlining the constraints and considerations. Darn if we couldn’t use more of this. Maybe people wouldn’t be so unrealistic and disconnected from reality, ready to cast (or not cast) all kinds of “protest votes” and demands that “Obama should MAKE things happen with the power of WORDS!!” (looking back a few years of course).

    Maybe people would be more connected to the real political process, if this were the kind of thing that the media reported on, instead of OOH WHAT WILL THIS MEAN FOR THE POLL NUMBERS / MIDWESTERN WHITE VOTERS / SMACKDOWN etc.

    As always David — thank you!

  14. 14
    gorram says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while – the first half of the first term for Obama is one model, but the first term as a whole for Clinton is another.

    In the former, the administration and congress focused on a major policy reform that had economic impacts, but in the latter it was purely economic policy that was put in place. In the short term, I think the latter would have meant having the financial resources on hand to deal with other policy problems or even crises, but the party also lost control of the government before being able to enact any other policies or needing to deal with the crises of, say, 9/11 or the subsequent recession. The surplus was squandered, and tax cuts were almost immediately done once Clinton left office with limited political repercussions.

    In contrast, Obama, Pelosi, and Reid put in place a more permanent policy effect, but that’s more targeted at least in terms of the biggest effects (ie: ending pre-existing conditions and expanding medicare access). Those demographically narrow effects by the ACA are threatened by a full scale repeal, and efforts later in Obama’s term and since then have shown how much immediate opposition a full repeal will engender. It seems counterintuitive, but the program that didn’t have as diffusely universal an effect has had more staying power than the Clinton-era accomplishments.

    We’re facing issues with the decline of democracy and rising global temperatures that are far more extreme. I can’t help noticing that the former has a general impact but also very specific groups that are very clearly affected – those disenfranchised due to convictions or current incarceration, those whose votes are curbed by the most egregious forms of gerrymandering, and those whose senatorial votes are effectively worthless. Could a democratizing reform create advocacy constituencies in the same way the ACA did? But, alternatively, can the political capital that creates be immediately leveraged by Democrats to also act regarding climate change?

  15. 15
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Remember that other than confirming Supreme Court Justices, none of this will happen unless the filibuster is killed.

  16. 16
    Another Scott says:

    @David Anderson: Dunno.

    The problem with the SCOTUS as it’s presently constituted is that it’s 5:4 with the monsters having the majority. Replacing two reliably liberal justices won’t fix that.

    Our problems are big enough, and the SCOTUS is far enough out of step with the country, that it really needs fundamental changes. The easiest and quickest would probably be to enlarge it to, say 17 justices once President Warren-Harris takes office in January 2021. ;-)

    As part of that change, I would be in favor of instituting some combination of maximum service time (so that 21 year-olds aren’t appointed and on the bench for 50+ years), and a retirement age (say, 70, for their sake (they should be able to enjoy a retirement and not feel that they have to protect the country from monsters for the rest of their lives) and ours).

    This assumes Democrats win the White House and the Senate and keep the House, of course. We have to do everything we can to make that happen.

    My $0.02.


  17. 17
    Wapiti says:

    It looks like the Senate is a dysfunctional organization if it can’t do more than this. Perhaps that was fine when the country was young, agrarian, and a third-rate power.

  18. 18
    daveNYC says:

    I’m not sure why you have constitutional amendments on that list. The vote requirements to get any progress there are not remotely possible.

  19. 19

    @Another Scott: Replacing two reliable liberal justices in their 80s with two reliable liberal justices in their 40s or 50s does nothing in this iteration of the game. It does a lot in future iterations of the game when random shock events like bad health/deaths happen as it reduces the maximum regret.

  20. 20
    Another Scott says:

    @David Anderson: Yeah, in the future Ginsburg and Breyer will leave the bench. And who knows what kind of people will replace them.

    But in the long run we’re all dead. I would like to see more immediate solutions to the problems with the SCOTUS.

    (Not that I’m expecting 11 or 17 justices in 2021, I just hope that we talk about it seriously. FDR’s credible threat to pack the court eventually got the monsters then to straighten up. These guys have shown that they will lie about their beliefs and “philosophy” and then do what they want, so they’re unlikely to change their spots, but maybe they’ll surprise us.)

    My $0.02.


  21. 21
    Brachiator says:


    There’s zero chance people won’t be disappointed in Dems. As soon as Trump is out of sight, out of mind, expect everyone to revert to form.

    That’s okay. Trump out of sight and out of mind will in itself be a damned good start.

  22. 22
    randy khan says:

    On the Supreme Court and its impact on the legislative agenda, I have a couple of thoughts:

    First, you can’t plan for Supreme Court vacancies. They happen when they happen. Although I would urge RBG and Breyer to think very hard about stepping down early in a Warren/Harris/Booker term, you can’t make them do it. And Thomas could have a heart attack any time. So I wouldn’t assume any particular number.

    Second, while Supreme Court nominations use up a lot of oxygen, they don’t actually take any more floor time than any other court nomination, thanks to the elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court confirmation votes.

  23. 23
    artem1s says:

    @David Anderson:

    @artem1s: RGB should have retired in 2013, as well as Breyer if they care about their legacy and are more intelligent about US politics than stoned 19 year olds or New York Times politics and culture columnists.

    Any liberal leaning judge over the age of 75 should resolve to retire as soon as the combination of a liberal president and 51 liberal aligned votes happen in the Senate as a rule going forward.

    unilateral disarmament is stupid. if it’s not a rule for fascist, xtian taliban neocons on the bench to retire at 75, then it’s stupid to disarm when your enemy is launching nuclear warheads at you. If we stop conceding the argument to the right that there can only be so many justices on the court, mandatory retirement is moot anyway. If we quit playing swap a liberal for a liberal and a conservative for a conservative, mandatory retirement is moot. BTW, that’s not the rule anymore. The mistake wasn’t RBG not retiring 4 years ago, the mistake Obama made was not setting the Senate on fire when McConnell refused to hold appointment hearings for Merrick Garland. If RBG had retired, we’d have 2 Brett Kavanaughs on the bench right now instead of one. Unless Dems are willing to go all in on SCOTUS appointments and getting federal judges appointed, our democracy is dead. The GOP has gotten away with obstructing the appointment of judges for so long now, it’s going to take a major, immediate change in urgency to reverse this course. This is the single most important thing the Dems can do for ANY POLICY CHANGES THEY WANT TO MAKE FOR THE NEXT 50 YEARS. Stack the fucking deck in the courts NOW so your regulations and laws don’t keep getting wiped out by lickspittles like Kavanaugh. When RBG retires, the GOP is going to block any appointment until they can put William Barr in her seat, no matter who is in the WH or who holds the Senate.

  24. 24
    gvg says:

    @gorram: Keep in mind chronology. Clinton came before Obama, and therefore Obama had “learned” from what happened to Clinton’s acts, and so had the democrats in Congress.
    People’s point of view can be different. Republican craziness was already rising during Clinton’s time in my memory and he was to me a pretty reliable veto of the worst wishes. He gave in on some things I didn’t like like welfare reform and repeal of certain banking limits, but my recollection is they had enough votes to probably over ride him (with some foolish democratic votes) and he did his best to steer the wave. People don’t remember the proposed laws that didn’t happen, but I remember being relieved at certain veto’s. Mostly protecting women and nature. Both men are smart, and observant.

  25. 25
    randy khan says:


    I’m not really seeing how your comment is responsive to a post that says that Ginsburg and Breyer should have retired when the Dems had a Senate majority (as they did in 2013) and that liberal justices should retire when there’s a Dem President and a Dem Senate majority.

    The question of whether the Court should be made bigger is separate from all of that.

  26. 26
    gorram says:

    @gvg: Definitely, it just seems like narrow, specific efforts have to be spearheaded on day one (Reagan-style allowing undocumented people to opt-in is also on the table, but I’m concerned about how loud we should be about that – not just because of how it will affect voting, but also because of how charged the atmosphere around immigration is right now).

    We just need to recognize it’s a two-step dance we have to do right now. Part two is necessary and urgent action on climate change. We ignore that at our peril.

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