Seven Numbers to Remember About the VA Compromise

According to multiple sources, Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have reached a tentative agreement on a bill to overhaul the Veterans Affairs health care system.  A news conference is scheduled for 1:30 today. [edit: Confirmed.  Details of the compromise bill can be found here.]

For the agreement to become law, it will need to be approved by a conference committee and subsequently passed by the full House and Senate.  Even though reforming the VA is widely considered a political no-brainer, up until this morning a compromise seemed unlikely.    But while various hurdles remain, in my view there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the odds of enactment.

Here are 7 numbers worth remembering:

5 days: the time remaining before Congress adjourns for its August recess.  Simply put, if the VA compromise isn’t sitting on the president’s desk by Friday, further action will be delayed until mid-September.  While this may seem like a bad thing, there are two important points to remember.  First, the deadline is probably good news for getting the compromise enacted.  Congress regularly faces deadlines (such as adjournment and expiring legislation) and empirical studies have shown that such deadlines can actually increase the likelihood of bill passage (see for example here).  Second, while most people respond negatively upon hearing that Congress is on “recess,” it’s important to keep in mind that lawmakers have two core jobs.  While policy creation is most visible, lawmakers also meet with constituents and fulfill their representative responsibilities during these so-called “breaks.”  So even though Congress is dysfunctional, legislative recesses are not a reason why.

3 day rule: a parliamentary rule requiring legislation to be available for three calender days before it can be considered by the entire House.  So even though the looming recess may compel lawmakers to act quickly on the compromise, the three day rule could be a significant barrier.  Of course, the rules of both chambers can be waived, so this isn't an insurmountable hurdle.  Expect a vote late in the legislative week.

3 votes: number of votes short of adopting a motion “instructing” House conference committee members to pass the Senate’s bill.  Quick background: When the House and Senate pass competing bills, as they have on the VA issue, a conference committee is tasked with merging the competing proposals (think of it as a smaller "super committee").  Last Thursday,  House Democrats came within three votes of passing a non-binding motion telling the conference committee to simply pass the Senate’s bill.  Given the narrowness of this vote, where thirteen House Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the other chambers plan, its clear lawmakers in both parties want to get a deal done.

128 laws: number of bills enacted into law in the 113th Congress.  At the same point two years ago, the total was 150 law.  And just a decade ago, the 107th Congress (which also had split chambers) had passed 203 laws at the end of July.  In sum, while the specifics of the compromise plan make me optimistic about the reform proposal's fate, the larger historical trends suggest greater caution is needed.  If the reform proposal somehow fails, it will be yet another bill in the graveyard of the "do nothing Congress."  Which bring us to the next number...

80% disapproval: the percentage of Americans who hold an unfavorable opinion of Congress.  Yes, there are many reasons for Congress’s low approval rating (which we detail here, here, and here), including the inability to pass major legislation.  And though each party is viewed unfavorably, both the net favorability and the generic ballot favor Democrats.  In sum, while both sides might object to certain elements of the Sanders-Miller compromise, there is significant external pressure on members of both parties (but particularity Republicans) to pass a bill before the August recess.

$17 billion: the total cost of the package.  In their negotiations, Sanders requested $25 billion while Miller was asking for $10 billion.  So while this is certainly a compromise, the financial aspects of the agreement are closer to Miller’s proposal.  However, the most important detail may be the fact that the $15 billion is “capped.”   In other words, once the allocated money is spent, the VA will have to request further funding from Congress.  According to one CBO report, the actual cost of expanded care (including the provision allowing veterans to use private medical facilities) will be around $50 billion.  So like the debt ceiling, we could be right back here a year from now.  [edit: the original post, published before the announcement, listed the price tag at $15 billion.]

99 days: the number of days before the 2014 midterm election.  How will the passage (or failure) of VA compromise proposal affect the balance of power in Washington?  Stay tuned…