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The Power of Personalized Policy

How does process affect policy? Professor Eileen Burgin brings her years as a Washington staffer and lobbyist to bear in her course on the topic. (Photo: Sally McCay)

As a young staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1980s, Eileen Burgin was fascinated by how members of Congress decided which issues to become actively involved in. It would become a prevalent theme in her academic research, which would shift over time, fittingly, for one of the same reasons she believes lawmakers change their legislative agendas to support specific causes.

“Based on my committee work in the House and interviews with members of Congress, I found that their own personal experience was one of the major factors affecting what causes they chose to get really involved in,” says Burgin, associate professor of political science. “They may have a family member with an illness that moved them to back medical research or a personal connection they’ve made with people in their district about issues like immigration or gun violence. It can make for odd bedfellows, but the bonds that are created through these shared experiences can bring members of both parties together. Sometimes we forget that they are people first.”     

Burgin, whose early research focused on Congress’ decision-making process related to foreign policy, made a significant shift in her own research agenda when her five-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Burgin became interested in the role of the public in determining how their tax dollars were spent on specific illnesses. She even lobbied on Capitol Hill for more biomedical resaerch funding and had her son speak with members of Congress. 

“You need to put a face on an issue for people to become passionate and really get behind it,” says Burgin. “If you don’t have someone championing an issue it won’t even get taken up by Congress. Breast cancer wasn’t even discussed on the floor of Congress until women started getting elected. It’s interesting to me how my own personal experiences helped shape and inform my research just as the personal experiences of members of Congress affect the causes they choose to support.”  

The role of public policy in health care implementation

Burgin’s most recent work is focused on a hot topic, the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act and the compromises made in Congress to get it passed. Her article “Congress, Health Care Reform, and Reconciliation” in Congress & the Presidency, an interdisciplinary journal of political science and history, explores the role of reconciliation -- a legislative process intended to allow consideration of budgetary matters in the Senate and House -- in the passage of health care reform in the 111th Congress.

“I was trying to make the point that this landmark piece of legislation that people were decrying and saying went through some sleazy process actually went through Congress largely through conventional means,” says Burgin, who teaches a course on Congressional process. “The legislation went through committees in both chambers. And virtually all health care reform that has happened since reconciliation was created has gone through the reconciliation process, including George Bush’s changes to Medicare, COBRA and SCHIP, so I wanted to change that myth.”

Burgin also wanted to show that, although counter-intuitive, the Senate losing its filibuster-proof super-majority when Republican Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts actually made it possible for health care reform to pass, by facilitating the use of reconciliation.

"No longer could the Democrats possibly clear a merged bill through both chambers; in response to an inevitable GOP filibuster with a unified Republican minority, Senate Democrats lacked sufficient votes to invoke cloture," says Burgin. "Senator Brown's victory altered the political environment, engendering different inter-chamber dynamics, new relative power levels among individual Senate Democrats, fear within the Democratic party, a shift in the role of principal players, and reinforcement of the permanent campaign mentality for the GOP. These changes facilitated the use of reconciliation, encouraging a compromising mindset within the Democratic ranks, and highlighted that without reconciliation meaningful health care overhaul could not be enacted into law."

Burgin recently published another article with Jacqueline Bereznyak ’11, a former student now working on civic engagement issues at Citizens Schools New York, in The Forum, the Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics. The article, “Compromising Partisans: Assessing Compromise in Health Care Reform,” parallels Burgin’s reconciliation piece by showing that in situations of unified government, especially in the current polarized era, that meaningful compromises to enact major legislation "may occur within heterogeneous parties instead of between polarized counterparts."

Weighing in on the effort to derail ‘Obamcare’

Burgin, who considers the Affordable Care Act a personal issue for President Obama given the health care issues his mother faced prior to her death, sees the current effort by members of the Republican Party to defund Obamacare as posturing and pandering to the base. Their biggest fear, she says, is that once the law goes into effect people are going to like it. “Once you give people a benefit they like, you can’t take it away.” Burgin points to pieces of the law that have already been enacted, like children being able to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 and children with pre-existing conditions not allowed to be denied insurance, as examples. “If they repeal these provisions, are they all of a sudden going to tell these kids who are able to have insurance and may have a serious illness like leukemia, ‘Sorry, you can’t get care?’”

Both parties have tried to stop major pieces of legislation in the past, she says, but few efforts have gone so far as to hold other parts of the budget hostage. The likelihood of the Affordable Care Act not being implemented is slim since it won’t pass the Senate and Obama can veto it, Burgin says.

“I think everyone knows they can’t stop it,” she says. “They are very limited in what they can do and won’t be able to filibuster the thing to death. What’s different is that Republicans are going further than anyone has ever gone before by holding things that are so important hostage to try and get rid of things that are already law -- and that the Supreme Court has deemed constitutional. They could cause a government shutdown, but polls show that this could backfire against them come elections.”

Burgin acknowledges that the new health care law “has a bunch of flaws in it,” but says that like most pieces of legislation, it’s a place to start and can then be improved upon.

“One of the problems with the bill is because the House had to accept the Senate bill (because the Senate didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority), they had to keep midnight compromises made in the Senate they never thought would become law,” says Burgin, who plans to spend her spring sabbatical studying health care reform and the impact of process on policy outcomes and the problems with implementation. “But major social change has never come easy. Every bill has flaws. Look at the creation of Homeland Security or Social Security or Medicare. The process really affects the policy, and that’s what I always try to teach my students. You have to understand process because the ramifications are huge.”