Jay Cost — The Democrats’ Health Care Dilemma

I have frequently heard analysts propose that the Democrats will pass a bill because they must, because the party requires it to retain an appearance of competence (or, at a minimum, to avoid the appearance of incompetence). I would not dispute that this is a vital part of the calculus, but it is not the whole game. The way I view the politics of the health care debate is akin to a potential collective action dilemma. This type of interaction presents several complications to the “they will because they must” argument.

Before we get into those, it’s important to remember two basic points about our system. First, the United States Congress does not represent the interests of the whole country. That’s a fallacy of composition. Instead, it’s the meeting place of all the representatives of the parts of the country. Thus, individual senators and congressmen ultimately rise or fall based not on how they serve the nation, but their local constituents. Second, and relatedly, nobody in Congress is electorally responsible to a national political party.

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