The Problem with Incrementalism
I think I assumed that everyone already knew this, but probably not. Matt Yglesias points out today that not only do Senate rules allow a minority to obstruct bills with majority support, but they allow them to delay even bills that have supermajority support:
First you need to file cloture on the motion to proceed. Then it takes about a day for cloture to “ripen.” Then there’s the cloture vote. Then a 30 hour waiting period. Then the vote on the motion to proceed. Then, even if there’s nothing left to debate, you need to do the whole thing over again. File for cloture. Take a day for cloture to ripen. Then the cloture vote. Then 30 hours. Then you vote.
One consequence of this is that if you have 100 small ways to improve the health care system, each of which piss off some small interest group, you can’t do the sensible thing and just bring each small idea to the floor separately and pass it. The sheer amount of time it takes to overcome some random bloc of Senators’ opposition makes it not worthwhile for most members. To get an idea enacted into law over determined opposition, you not only need at least 60 Senators to agree with it, you need them to be enthusiastic enough to let your pet plan eat up all this time.
By itself, this isn't such a bad thing. The Senate is supposed to be the "cooling" chamber, so having rules in place that allow the minority to delay action is entirely in keeping with its original intent. But when you put it together with the institutionalization of the filibuster, the routine use of personal holds, and the almost complete breakdown of partisan aisle crossing, it's a recipe for disaster.
But regardless of what you think of all that, this is why the idea of giving up on healthcare reform and instead passing a bunch of little bills is such a bad idea. Policywise it's bad because most of these little things don't work unless they're part of a bigger plan, and politically it doesn't work because the Senate literally doesn't have enough time in the year to pass them all. There's really no alternative to passing the existing bill as is and then working to improve it during the budget reconciliation process later this year.