Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Game theory and ping-pong 

There's been a lot of moralizing about the holdout strategies of Lieberman and Nelson, but under some game-theoretic accounts it is a blessing in disguise, a blessing for Obama at least. For instance Rahm Emanuel can now say to the House: "look, we just can't renegotiate this any more or the coalition will fall apart. You'd better get on board with the Senate version of the bill" A lot of these legislative games don't otherwise have a core, or it takes so long to find the core that the deal falls apart in the meantime.

The holdout behavior of one decisive Senator decreases the need to cut bargains with other members of Congress. The key words here are "credible precommitment to no further renegotiation." The more anxious or wavering Nelson and Lieberman were/are, the more credible this precommitment.

Tyler Cowen. No offense to my friends who are waging the battle against the bill by holding out for conference committee, but my best bet is that it never gets there. Keith Hennessey wrote last week: "When one legislative body credibly says 'We cannot pass anything but X,' and the other says 'We don�t want to pass anything but Y,' X wins." John Fund concurs:

When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they increasingly did not send bills through the regular conference process. "We have to defer to the bigger picture," explained Rep. Henry Waxman of California. So the children's health insurance bill passed by the House that year was largely dumped in favor of the Senate's version. House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel and other Democrats complained the House had been "cut off at the knees" but ultimately supported the bill. Legislation on lobbying reform and the 2007 energy bill were handled the same way -- without appointing an actual conference.

Rather than appoint members to a public conference committee, those measures were "ping-ponged" -- i.e. changes to reconcile the two versions were transmitted by messenger between the two houses as the final product was crafted behind closed doors solely by the leadership.
So even if they can't get 218 on this version of the Senate bill, they may just circumvent conference and send something back to the Senate to which Reid and Pelosi have already agreed.

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