Monday, March 8, 2010

Obamacare Game Theory

There is an interesting game theoretic aspect to the current state of health care reform legislation (aka Obamacare). The Democrats need to pass the Senate bill in the House first, and only then can they fix the provisions currently unacceptable to the House with a followup bill that needs to pass both the Senate and the House. The controversy about reconciliation concerns using reconciliation to pass the followup bill in the Senate with 50 votes (our clownish vice-president would cast the tie-breaking vote, so 50 is all the Democrats need).

Many consider this use of reconciliation to be illegitimate, since it is facilitating the passage of sweeping legislation that doesn't even come close to meeting the eligibility requirements for circumventing the Senate filibuster. I don't agree on that specific point. Although it's a close call, using reconciliation to fix budget-related aspects of the bill in order to attract more votes in the House strikes me as reasonable. After all, the House still has to pass the Senate bill without any guarantees whatsoever. If Democrats tried to do it the other way around -- pass a reconciliation bill first, then I think that would be an egregious attempt at circumvention of the filibuster.

That being said, there is a strong argument that the bill is illegitimate as it stands. There is no doubt that it wouldn't have received 60 votes in the Senate if not for the presence of outrageous provisions used to bribe individual senators. Everybody is rebelling against those provisions now and wants them stripped out of the bill, even some of the senators that negotiated them in the first place, but the bill would not have passed the Senate without them.

For the game theory aspect of Obamacare, I'm going to assume that the Republicans actually have a way of severely impeding a reconcilation bill. I believe this is true. One way is to raise points of order repeatedly against reconciliation bill provisions for violating the Byrd rule. A second is to offer hundreds of amendments to the bill after time for debate has elapsed. Each of these amendments takes a minimum of 15 minutes to vote on, and so it is possible to kill an entire legislative day with 50 or 60 relevant amendments. Do this for long enough, and the Senate grinds to a halt.

Given that the Republicans might actually have it in their power to obstruct a reconciliation bill, the Republican dilemma is as follows:

1) the Senate bill would not pass if House Democrats believed the bill would remain as it is and not be amended immediately; there are just too many House Dems who would vote no on the Senate bill all by itself;

2) some of the most important amendments that skeptical House Dems want to see are provisions that Republicans and the general public support (e.g. stronger restrictions on abortion funding, elimination of the Cornhusker Kickback, Louisiana Purchase, and the Florida Flim-Flam and weakening of the mandate to buy insurance);

3) if enough House Dems think that the Republicans will be forced to allow those amendments to pass, the Senate bill will pass the House.

Essentially the House Dems will play a game of chicken with Senate Republicans. They go first and put the Senate Republicans in a position of having to obstruct popular measures that Republicans themselves support.

The Republicans' quandary is similar to that of the United States during the cold war. How did the United States convince the Soviet Union that it would respond to a ground invasion of Western Europe with a nuclear escalation? Once the invasion is underway after all, the logical decision for the US is not to escalate.

The solution of course is to implement elaborate protocols to convince the other side of the credibility of the threat of retaliation. The United States developed a whole strategy built around nuclear retaliation in Europe.

It kept a few hundred thousand troops on the front lines, which was a force way too small to stop an invasion, but large enough to create a terrible bloodbath for the US if the Soviet Union invaded. The nuclear retaliation strategy was developed in detail at conferences, in military schools, and in the academic literature. And it was widely publicized and discussed by high officials in the US and in Europe, including by US presidents.

All of this was effective in preparing the public for the inevitability of nuclear retaliation and for putting the president of the US on autopilot for following the protocol. As a consequence, the threat was credible to the Soviet Union and functioned effectively as deterrence.

The Senate Republicans can play this game correctly by laying out their strategy of obstruction in advance and publicizing it widely. They need to publicize the points of order they will raise, as well as the hundreds of amendments they'll have prepared to delay a vote on the reconciliation bill. It strikes me as easy to propose thousands of non-frivolous amendments, by the way. All you have to do is propose reducing spending on items in this year's or next year's budget, one at a time.


Jim said...

Well, if this is the republican plan, they're not executing well.

I see no evidence that they would vote against stripping payment for abortion measures out of the bill.

They need to be out there now saying that if the Dems use Reconciliation, it's scorched earth time. They will use every procedural trick in the book to jam up the senate.

They're not doing it, because in my mind the threat is not credible. Obstructionism by the GOP on anything other than this unpopular HCR bill will not be viewed well by the electorate.

Actually, it just occurred to me that Jim Bunning's stunt on pay go was simply a trial balloon on this strategy. In any case, it got shot down.

The Senate GOP will have to choose very carefully what amendments they propose, and how they vote with regard to any reconciliation bill. I do not believe the electorate will view any retaliatory or escalatory measures kindly.

ESM said...


See the following link:

“So you’d be voting with Barbara Boxer on an abortion measure?” a reporter asked Sen. Tom Coburn ...

“Yes I would. I certainly would,” Coburn said, clarifying that he would oppose a procedural motion in the Senate to allow the stricter ban on federal funding for abortion from being added to the Senate health reform bill.

Thankfully, Republican leaders are reading this blog :^).

And I completely disagree with you that the electorate won't view retaliatory or escalatory measures kindly. The general public understands the game of chicken instinctively, and it will support the strategy. After all, the bad stuff that's in the Senate bill isn't material at all. It's mostly just a bunch of annoying bribes without any discernable impact on anybody's life (besides the fact that it facilitated passage of the bill in the first place of course).