Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small.

By Michael Lind
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Washington has fallen in love with "comprehensive reform" -- legislation aimed at solving all aspects of a big problem in one dramatic and history-making move.

We saw it with health care. Now comprehensive financial regulatory reform has passed in the House, with a Senate vote expected soon. Up next may come energy legislation, following President Obama's Oval Office speech last month proclaiming a new "national mission" to wean America off fossil fuels. Comprehensive immigration reform, which failed back in 2007, waits in the wings, with the president calling for such an effort in a July 1 address. And a push for comprehensive fiscal reform will surely come on the heels of the recommendations this fall from Obama's deficit commission.

No doubt, the problems we face -- massive unemployment, a broken immigration system, a malfunctioning financial sector -- are monumental. But it does not follow that each complex, giant problem must be addressed by one complex, giant bill. If anything, history shows that piecemeal reforms are often more lasting than a legislative Big Bang.

Politicians are seduced by comprehensive reform because history tends to glorify presidents and legislators who pass big, definitive laws. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, for example, is celebrated for averting the Civil War for a decade by passing the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily resolved disputes over slavery in territories that the United States gained in the Mexican War. But the compromise came together only after a large omnibus bill failed; the legislation was broken up into five smaller bills, each of which passed separately.

President Franklin Roosevelt set a high standard for legislative accomplishments during the first 100 days of his administration in 1933, but here, too, popular memory can mislead. While some of FDR's signature achievements, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, passed during those early days of his presidency, his central accomplishment of that period -- the National Recovery Administration -- was a flop that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1935. One of the most lasting achievements of the New Deal was Social Security, and it came in 1935, long past those 100 days.

And while President Lyndon Johnson is remembered for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was the culmination of increasingly bold civil rights laws in 1957 and 1960 that chipped away at segregation before the final push shattered American apartheid.

Politicians and advocacy groups say they have no choice but to push for all-encompassing reforms because the alternative -- slow, incremental change -- is doomed to fail. On health care, for example, advocates of comprehensive reform said costs couldn't be contained unless the problem of increasing coverage was solved, too. Similarly, proponents of an immigration overhaul contend that you can't secure the borders without fixing the status of illegal immigrants already living here.

On any issue, it seems, the pieces are all so connected that it is impossible to solve one challenge without the rest. And time is never on your side, because the titanic struggle to pass any reform will be so bruising that, succeed or fail, shell-shocked lawmakers will shun the issue for years to come.

But there are three critical problems with comprehensive reform -- problems that a more methodical, step-by-step approach could help remedy.

First, large-scale reforms give excessive leverage to politicians and groups representing narrow interests. In the health-care battle, holdouts such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) enjoyed disproportionate bargaining power precisely because so much was at stake. And during the push for immigration reform during the George W. Bush administration, business interests forced the last-minute addition of a provision for hundreds of thousands of new guest workers -- and helped doom the legislation by inspiring the opposition of organized labor.

In such cases, the outcome might have been different if Congress had passed a series of more limited bills, each with different sets of supporters, instead of creating one giant victim that a small group of representatives and senators could take hostage.

The second reason comprehensive reform is problematic is that it assumes an ability to foresee problems and fix them in advance -- a skill not necessarily found among mere mortals. The longer the time horizon, the greater the hubris of those who claim to be solving problems not just for today but for generations to come.

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