Sunday, November 15, 2009

Process, Convoluted; Explanation, Not So

"When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better."

There are several different descriptions of Occam’s Razor and human behavior being often of complex cause, the theory is not always applicable.

Still, sometimes it is. Consider, for example, explanations offered for the support given the Stupak-Pitts anti-abortion amendment, which gained the assent of many pro-choice members of the House of Representatives, on its way to passage by a vote of 240-194. As you may have heard, passage of the health care bill, with this radical language attached, soon took place in the lower chamber.

Nate Silver of the respected fivethirtyeight.com found there were 35 House members who had in 2007-2008 at least a 67 rating with Planned Parenthood and no more than a 33 rating with the National Right to Life Committee (chart included in that post) who voted for the amendment. These included 20 Democrats, of whom 17 voted for final passage. He argues (11/9/08)

…. there are idiosyncratic explanations in a number of cases, but I take this as a sign that they're worried about the re-election environment they'll face in 2010. 11 of the 20 pro-choice Democrats who voted for Stupak reside in districts that are rated as vulnerable according to Cook Political (note: candidates who are leaving the House to run for Senate or governor are rated based on those races instead). And, interestingly, they seem to think that a pro-choice vote would render them more vulnerable than a pro-health care vote, even though the pro-choice position is generally more popular than the health care bill on the table at the moment (although some recent polls have shown the pro-choice position losing ground).

Certainly, on health care, some of this may be a consequence of the logic that James Carville and others have espoused: Democrats know -- or believe -- that they'll be damned if don't pass a health care bill, so why not take the chance that things will turn out OK if they do? But there may also be something more here. Whereas the pro-life (anti-choice) movement is very well organized and has a long history of delivering votes, the anti-health care movement is somewhat disjointed, seemed to be limited in its electoral reach in NY-23, and carries a lot of baggage -- Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, town hall screamers, and the like. And it may also be revealing of how they perceive their own base: whereas health care is a sine qua non for most Democratic base voters, they seem to be betting that the pro-choice position might no longer be.


Well, now, that’s a rational and reasonable theory. But a little complicated, and less likely, than that offered by Diane DeGette (D.-Co.), who led opposition to this change, which widened the scope of the Hyde Amendment. DeGette attributes much of the support for this restriction of abortion rights to the failure of many liberal/progressive members to recognize the scope of the proposal, as indicated in this exchange with Open Left’s Paul Rosenberg:

Open Left: So do you believe that that confusion is what accounts for the margin that he was able to win on?

Congresswoman DeGette: Absolutely. Absolutely. No question about it, Because I had quite a few people say to me 'This is just Hyde.' And I was running around... Most people found out about this on Saturday morning, when they got there, because the decision was made late Friday night, and I was literally running around, trying to tell people what it did.

At the same time, a lot of people were being pressured by their bishops, which, you know, that's a whole different thing. So they thought, 'Well if this is just Hyde, then no big deal.' But I had several people after that vote say to me... people who voted for Stupak, they said, 'This needs to be fixed by the conference.'
And we have several people who have 100% pro-choice voting records who voted for it.

It’s hard to imagine members of the United States House of Representatives being so ignorant. (Really, it is.) But it may not be mere ignorance, but clever strategy inasmuch as

.... Bart really moved the goal post, because in the Energy and Commerce Committee in the summer he offered several of his amendments and we defeated all of them. So after that he said that he demendad that the Speaker allow him to offer his amendment on the floor, although he wasn't clear which one. When the bill came up and he said that if he was not allowed to offer his amendment, then he would have 40 votes against the rule. So we went out and very industriously got enough votes to pass the rule. And so the Speaker said, 'You know we've got the votes to pass the rule. So I'm not going to support your amendment being in order.'

Then he said, this was like last Thursday or Friday, at the 11th hour, she said 'We've got the votes the votes for the rule, and it's not going to be in order,' and he said, 'Well, fine, if you don't include my amendment in the rule to bring the bill to the floor, then we're all going to vote against the bill. So he shifted the goal post. And what happened was-and the way it would have worked is that his language would have been a part of the rule to bring the bill to the floor, so all of us would have had to vote for it. We would have all had to vote for the biggest expansion of retrictions on a woman's right to choose in our lifetime.


Rather complicated, but it seems at the last minute Representative Stupak threatened Speaker Pelosi with the withholding of 40 votes to release the bill to the floor unless his amendment were included in the rule to allow a vote. Consequently, the Speaker agreed to a separate vote on his amendment, which then passed- apparently with the assent of several pro-choice members unaware of the implications of the legislation. As the video (below) of Stupak's testimony before the House Rules Committee earlier in the month indicates, the Michigan congressman sold the measure as merely nothing more restrictive than the Hyde Amendment, noting "funding in HR 3962 is not subject to the annual appropriations law and therefore is not subject to the Hyde provisions contained in the annual labor HHS bill." Disingenuously assuring colleagues "we are not writing a new federal abortion policy," he strongly implied that the provision merely codified the provisions of Hyde.

Fortunately, the effort to impose on abortion rights sweeping new restrictions neither in the letter nor the spirit of the Hyde Amendment may not be included in the health care reform bill considered in the Senate. And if it is, it may not survive the conference committee report. Nonetheless, dramatic passage of the measure in a House of Representatives with a majority of Democrats, supportive of a Democratic president, is an impressive example of clever strategy supplemented by the ignorance of others.

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