Why Amendments Matter (A Theory of Change)

In Climate Change, Economic Planning, Economics, Environment, Full Employment, Health Care Reform, History and Politics, Political Ideology, Political Parties, Politics, Politics of Policy, Public Policy, Social Democracy, Uncategorized on August 3, 2009 at 6:41 pm


As we approach the first full year of the Obama Administration and the 2008 Democratic Congress, we are beginning to see a pattern emerge. Namely that substantial policy advances have been made – the stimulus, Obama’s first budget, Waxman-Markey, and the health care – some of which remain extremely precarious in terms of passage, yet these have uniformly fallen short of activists’ hopes for change. To an extent, this frustration is also exacerbated by some signal failures – foreclosure cram-down, credit card reform, the bailouts and executive compensation, to say nothing of foreign and social policy shortcomings.  In so far as frustration with the Obama administration rests on a tactical calculation of successes versus failures, or promises made and not kept, this is good and righteous altogether.

However, I do believe that some frustration – especially with the climate change and health care bill – that has given rise to calls that “a weak bill is worse than no bill at all” stems from a bad theory of activism. As I have argued before, the “big bang” theory that changes happens all at once or not at all is wrong.


Let us take the example of one movement of radical activists pushing a long-term political projects – the radical Republicans who sought the abolition of slavery. In this classic case, I will argue, victory came not in a single “big bang” of perfect legislation, but by the slow laborous process of building half-step upon half-step, combining constant and uncompromising pressure with the patience to outlast and wait for the right moment to strike, seizing the opportunity and building momentum through the successive passage of legislation.

The Radical Republicans

RadicalsThe Radical Republicans are perhaps the most successful radical group in American history. Never more than a handful of Congressmen and Senators, the Radicals never held a majority in either Congress or their own party’s caucus, but they used their unified position, firm agenda, and key positions of authority such as the Committee on War Affairs or the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to push through an agenda that abolished slavery and for a decade reshaped the political order of the South and dominated the national debate. Fittingly for our purposes, they emerged from a split within the abolition movement between William Llyod Garrison and his followers who urged for “pure” abolitionism and preferred direct action and “moral suasion” to political engagement, and those who would later join the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and ultimately the Republican Party. In so doing, they had to accept political alliances with anti-Catholic nativists, Free Soilers who wished to bar both slavery and African-Americans from the West, and compromisers like Abraham Lincoln, who accepted that slavery could not be abolished in the South, but only barred from expansion into the territories. (If we’re making analogies here, one might compare the politics of the no-extension position with those of the individual mandate in health care)

During the Civil War, the Radicals faced a difficult position – the majority of Congress were anti-abolition men, and in fact had overwhelmingly passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution in 1861 declaring that the North’s war aims were to restore the Union without meddling with slavery. Their solution was to combine an ideological insistence that slavery had to end, that the war was fundamentally a war against a slave society, with a patient eye to the long game. When the strains of war gradually pushed Congress in their direction, the Radicals pushed through the First and Second Confiscation Acts – the first classified slaves as property (imagine the strain on the conscience of abolitionists who had fought their entire lives establishing the principle that slaves were people to accede to this) that could be confiscated by Union forces from Confederate sympathizers; the second authorized the freeing of slaves owned by Confederate officials (not the mass of citizenry) and went one step further to declare slaves who escaped to Union lines were refugees who would be freed, but remained non-citizens. In both these acts, Radicals were forced to compromise principles, log-roll the hatred of anti-abolition Republicans for the Confederacy, and move against the opposition of President Lincoln. It was this political work that eventually drove Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (among other reasons) in order to regain control over war policy.

With this step taken, the Radicals could push for the 13th Amendment, using the Emancipation Proclamation to argue that abolition of slavery was a fait accompli, and that it was one which the President supported. Lincoln, who by this point had accepted the inevitability of abolition and the impossibility of either compensation or colonization, acceded and supported the Radicals in this insistence.

After the war, a similar process unfolded whereby Radicals pushed for half-measures that they knew would win majority support in a Republican Congress where moderates held the swing vote – hence the Civil Rights Act  (which only listed such civil rights as the right to sue and be sued, bear witness in court, and own property – far from a definitive list), the Freedmen’s Bureau (as opposed to the redistribution of the plantations that Thaddeus Stevens called for), the 14th Amendment (which left out the right to vote), the 15th Amendment (which did not make an affirmative right to vote, but only barred denying the vote on certain grounds), the Reconstruction Act (giving Congress authority over the governance and readmission of the rebel states into the Union), and the Force Acts (authorizing the military to enforce Congress’ reconstruction laws and the laws of the reconstruction governments, making it a Federal crime to violate someone’s civil rights, establishing Federal registrars to oversee voting in the South). In every case, each law built upon the previous, gradually enlarging the boundaries of freedom no faster than the comfort level of Congress would admit.

Famously, Thaddeus Stevens lamented how the Reconstruction laws that he had helped to pass, laws deemed for generations afterward as radical, were in fact hugely disappointing compromises:

This proposition is not all that the committee desired. It falls far short of my wishes, but it fulfills my hopes. I believe it is all that can be obtained in the present state of public opinion. Not only Congress but the several States are to be consulted. Upon a careful survey of the whole ground, we did not believe that nineteen of the loyal States could be induced to ratify any proposition more stringent than this. I say nineteen, for I utterly repudiate and scorn the idea that any State not acting in the Union is to be counted on the question of ratification. It is absurd to suppose that any more than three fourths of the States that propose the amendment are required to make it valid; that States not here are to be counted as present. Believing, then, that this is the best proposition that can be made effectual, I accept it. I shall not be driven by clamor or denunciation to throw away a great good because it is not perfect. I will take all I can get in the cause of humanity and leave it to be perfected by better men in better times. It may be that that time will not come while I am here to enjoy the glorious triumph; but that it will come is as certain as that there is a just God.


It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Niccolo Machiavelli, Il Principe (Book VI)

Political change is hard. It is not enough to want something, it is not enough to be right, you have to grow power, like a patient gardener. It is also not enough to build a bare majority in one Congress (lest the next Congress repeal your victory) – you have to build an enduring coalition of interests who are both deeply invested in the success of the legislation, and who have the organization and power needed to maintain their position in the political arena. During the French Revolution, the new National Assembly famously sold off the lands of the Church through biens nationeaux (a cross between paper money and IOUs, redeemable in land), creating a generation of landowning peasants (especially in the North and Central of France) who would lose everything if the monarchy ever returned.

We must do the same today. The point is not merely to pass the bill, but to re-order the system of power as it operates in America, by shaping the habits and processes of Federal law-making and law-enforcing, by creating “iron triangles” of Congressional Committees, bureaucracies, and “special” interest groups.

In this light, the passage of a “weak” bill is not a bad thing, if the passage of that bill gets the Congress used to passing a bill the next year and the year after that, if you can begin to build up political momentum and inertia in favor of your issue, creating the same kind of inexorable presence that Social Security or ag subsidies enjoy, but turning it to the benefit of the previously powerless, the people who need the power of democracy in their lives.


Let’s take three examples of bills that have either passed, or may well pass in this Congress which have disappointed progressives. In each year following, new amendments and re-authorizations can be used to reshape the policy step by step.

Recovery – here, the key to improving the system is to use events like the re-authorization of the Cash for Clunkers program or the extension of UI benefits to push longer-term goals. UI extension goes hand-in-hand with the extension of UI eligibility to part time and temporary workers, the gradual movement of the program from state to Federal control, the expansion of benefits. Cash for Clunkers goes hand in hand with other forms of Keynesian stimulus, such as a payroll tax holiday or a sales tax holiday, or the extension of new public works. Getting Congress used to doing this for unemployed and struggling Americans makes it easier to pass a temporary Jobs Bill (especially if you act around the midterm elections), and then a Swedish style Labor Demand system, and then eventually a permanent system of Job Insurance (more on this later).

Health Care – here, the obvious move is to continually expand eligibility for groups and individuals to go onto the health exchanges and into the public plan, allowing individuals and unions to move out of their employer’s coverage and into the public plan, further extend Medicaid and Medicare, further improve the premium subsidies and lower the premiums of the public plan, increase regulations and private insurers, move from fee-for-service to capitation plus performance bonus (as is done in the NHS), and then eventually moving to a Medicare for All model.

Climate Change – while the Waxman-Markey bill got really watered down by the House (and will be more so by the Senate if it passes), there is also a route for improvement here. Here, the key yearly improvements is to increase the percentage of renewable energy in the portfolio, increase energy efficiency targets for homes and appliances (and mpg in cars), to decrease the number of permits given away versus sold, and to speed up the schedule for emissions reductions.

But crucially this will not happen unless a strong constituency together. Recovery amendments will need the formation of a strong pressure group (“Americans For Recovery”), which brings together state and local politicians, construction and materials firms, “green tech” folks, labor unions, and ultimately the unions of public works employees who can sling both votes and money in the halls of Congress. Health Care improvements will require something like an AARP of members of the public plan, Medicaid and Medicare enrollees, doctors and nurses, existing health care reform groups, and people who get subsidies for their health insurance (bringing together people in public plans with people in private plans, and the poor together with the middle class). For Cimate Change, you’ll need something like the National Association of Green Business to counter-act other business lobbies.

This is how you win. It’s not pretty, it’s not spontaneous, it’s not a righteous uprising in the streets – it is the gathering of power to a point.

And it is how democracy works.

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  1. Well put. The catch, though, is that not all incremental reforms are equally successful at building constituencies, policy momentum, new legislative habits, etc. Weak bills are not all weak in the same ways. The implication of your argument, it seems to me, is that the distinction we need to make isn’t between “real reform” and “half measures” but between which feasible measures are good foundations for building on, and which aren’t.

    For health care — as you note — the key incremental change would be to expand eligibility for public health care. Expanding Medicare to cover all children, for instance, seems the kind of reform that meets your criteria. That’s quite different from the sort of thing that’s likely to emerge from Congress this fall. My concern at this point is that the legislative process this year may achieve health care reform that’s hard to build on.

    • You raise a good point. Perhaps we could call it the difference between “opening reforms” and “closing reforms.”
      (or if you wanted to get really APD, positive path-dependent or negative path-dependent).

      On health care, I think the expansion and partial Federalization of Medicaid and the premium subsidies are the key points.
      As Medicaid expands up the income ladder and becomes more federal, it will increasingly come to resemble Medicare.
      As the premium subsidies expand towards 100%, the system becomes increasingly more single-payer.

  2. […] I’ve stated on previous occasions, one of the most fundamental changes that comes with the passage of the current […]

  3. […] which is that Congress tends to be a creature of habits and gradual efforts. While gradualism is a fine strategy in some areas, it’s poison for infrastructure: major projects are forestalled for lack of funding, the pace […]

  4. […] as I’ve argued, good public policy includes a mechanism by which a majority constituency in favor of that policy […]

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