7 numbers to remember about the VA compromise plan

Can Congress pass the bipartisan plan announced Monday to fix the VA? Well, Congress's track record isn't great. But there are a few reasons to be optimistic. Seven, in fact.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R) of Florida (l.) and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont talk before holding a news conference to announce bipartisan legislation to address problems in the VA healthcare system at the Capitol in Washington Monday.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R) of Florida and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont announced a tentative agreement Monday on a bill to overhaul the Veterans Affairs health care system.

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.  While reforming the VA is a political no-brainer, up until this morning a compromise appeared unlikely. And though there are various hurdles remaining, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Here are seven numbers, with commentary, 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 on 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 research has shown that such deadlines can actually increase the likelihood of bill passage (see for example here). Second, while most people respond negatively when they hear 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: parliamentary rule requiring legislation to be available for three calender days before it can be considered by the full House. So even though the looming recess may increase the odds of passage, the three day rule could make quick passage more difficult. The House and Senate rules can be waived, it’s not something they like to do. 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 supercommittee). Last Thursday, House Democrats came within three votes of passing a nonbinding motion telling the conference committee to simply pass the Senate’s bill. Given the narrowness of this vote, where 13 House Republicans joined with all Democrats, 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. 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 give me reasons to be optimistic about the reform proposal’s fate, the larger historical trends suggest otherwise. If the reform proposal fails, it will be yet another bill in the graveyard of the “do nothing Congress.”

$17 billion: the total cost of the package. In their negotiations, Senator Sanders requested $25 billion while Representative 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 $17 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 Congressional Budget Office 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.

80 percent disapproval: the percentage of Americans who hold an unfavorable opinion of Congress. While there are many reasons for Congress’s low approval rating (which we detail here, here, and here) the inability to pass major legislation is certainly one. 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.

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

Jordan Ragusa publishes his Rule 22 blog at http://rule22.wordpress.com/.

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