For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.
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In early 2010, the Affordable Care Act was stuck.
House Democrats had passed their version of a health care reform bill; Senate Democrats had passed an alternative; and the party had every intention of going to a conference committee to work out a final package. That plan was derailed, however, when Republican Scott Brown was elected in January 2010 to replace Ted Kennedy. Even if Democrats worked out a bicameral agreement, they would need sixty votes to send the bill to Barack Obama for his signature—and they were suddenly left with a fifty-nine-member majority.
To get the ACA un-stuck, Democrats were left with limited options. Eliminating the filibuster was, at the time, a political nonstarter. They could have found a possible Republican ally in the Senate, but after months of outreach, it was obvious no such person existed. Democrats could have given up on the reform effort altogether, but the political consequences would have been catastrophic. More importantly, the effects on millions of American families would be even more severe.
It seemed to me then that the party had only one way forward: the House would have to pass the Senate bill, send it to the White House, and consider related measures in separate legislation to pass through the budget reconciliation process. I wrote about this path at the time from my perch at the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal blog, where I was the principal contributor.
To my disappointment, many House Democrats resisted the approach—in part because they preferred the lower chamber’s more progressive bill, and in part because they weren’t convinced Senate Democrats would approve a side bill with related provisions. But the more skeptical rank-and-file House members were of this idea, the more I wrote about the need for them to overcome their trepidation and “pass the damn bill.”
It wasn’t long before my exasperation led me to start using more idiosyncratic grammar: “Pass the damn bill,” in short order, became, “Pass. The. Damn. Bill.” The phrase caught on with many readers, who began using it in their communications with members’ offices.
Ultimately, I wrote a print story for the Monthly presenting my argument in the form of a 4,000-word strategy memo.
The inspiration for the missive was, oddly enough, a memo Bill Kristol wrote for congressional Republicans sixteen years earlier as the Clinton administration’s health care initiative took shape. Kristol’s advice was callous and partisan, but straightforward: GOP lawmakers had no choice but to kill the Democratic plan, regardless of its merits, and resist any urge to propose alternative solutions. The future of Republican politics, he said, demanded no less.
My hope was to create a bookend memo of sorts. I gave it a tongue-in-cheek name—the Project for a Healthy American Future—with the intention of echoing Kristol’s Project for the New American Century.
After a handful of Washington Monthly readers asked how they could contribute to the Project for a Healthy American Future, it occurred to me that the reference was perhaps a bit too obscure.
Regardless, the piece had legs. In the weeks that followed, Democratic lawmakers came around and ultimately embraced the recommended course. While it would be an exaggeration in the extreme to suggest the items I published at the Monthly were responsible for the outcome, I spoke to several Capitol Hill sources who told me the strategy memo was circulated widely among Democratic offices.
The morning of the presidential bill signing, Brian Beutler, then at the New Republic, joked on Twitter that a handful of progressive writers, including me, were responsible for “saving” the legislation. He suggested that we each receive signing pens.
I never got a pen, but I did get the satisfaction of knowing my work at the Washington Monthly made a small difference on a big issue.