Rupert Cornwell: Procedures are the problem

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The Independent Online

As its hopes of healthcare reform suffer endless interference on Capitol Hill, how the Obama administration must wish it was operating by British rules.

How simple things would be. A single bill would be sent by the government (the White House) to parliament (Congress). None of this business of five committees in two chambers drawing up their own measures. And any resistance could be quashed by the swift application of a three-line whip.

Alas, the US system, with its scrupulous balance between the "co-equal" executive and the legislative branches, doesn't work like that. Any bill the White House sends to Congress is merely a wish. It may be rewritten by the House of Representatives and the Senate, which work in parallel but rarely in unison. Their two versions must be melded into one, that each chamber must again approve. Only then can a new law be signed by the President.

Moreover, British-style party discipline does not exist here. Barack Obama's Democrats have strong majorities in both chambers. But that's no guarantee of success. The fate of health reform hinges on agreement between liberal Democrats and more conservative Democrats. A compromise is likely, but not certain.

Two other factors complicate matters. Congress has always been partisan, but rarely as partisan as now. A handful of Republicans at best will support a final bill, leaving the divided Democrats on their own. Meanwhile, the clout of lobbyists – including those acting on behalf of the $2.3trn healthcare sector – has never been greater.

Healthcare is but one of three massive public policy issues that Congress must tackle soon (the others are climate change and financial market reform). They amount to an acid test of whether the US legislative system can deliver.

It is said that the laborious American way of lawmaking has one redeeming virtue, of making it very hard to pass bad laws. But it's got close to the point where it's very hard to pass any laws at all.

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