Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Deadlines, Schmedlines...

“If you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen.
The default position is inertia.”
– President Barack Obama July 22, 2009

We enter another weekend with yet another health care deadline hanging low on Washington’s horizon. It will be neither the first nor the last time that gauntlets have been thrown down.

Let’s work our way backward for a moment. This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved heaven and earth, in political terms, to meet the latest deadline Democrats have set to pass health care reform.

Leaving aside whether you like her methods, or whether you agree that the President’s approach to health care reform is the correct one, it was fascinating once again to see political faith invested in the power of the deadline. The problem is not the line in the sand – it’s that the sucker keeps on shifting.

Follow the bouncing ball:

  • In February 2009, President Obama declared :"The cost of health care has weighed down our economy and our conscience long enough. So let there be no doubt, health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."  Ummm. It’s been 13 months.
  • In July 2009, he reset the deadline. “I want it done by the end of this year...I want it done by the fall." No dice. While the House passed its version of the bill, Senators had yet to complete theirs. So Democrats set a Christmas deadline for Senate passage, and surprise! They made it. However, agreement on a final bill remains elusive.

Since then, we’ve seen the rhetorical deadlines come and go — usually set by the White House and ignored by the lawmakers who have to wrangle a passable bill into shape.

President Obama is not the only leader who has succumbed to the siren song of the arbitrary deadline. Most honest lawmakers would admit that they have voted out their share of emergency legislation as a Congressional recess approaches.

President George W. Bush saw the peril in hard and fast deadlines, especially when it came to wartime decision-making. In May 2007, he vigorously resisted efforts to be pinned down on a date to withdraw troops from Iraq.

"It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing,” President Bush said. “All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength."

President Obama, by contrast, started setting deadlines the moment he arrived at the White House. On January 22, to be precise, he signed an executive order to close the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year. We all know how that worked out.

So if it feels like “déjà vu all over again,” that’s because it is. Along the way to this latest crossroads in the health care debate, we have endured “summits”, and not one but a series of “pivotal speeches,” “critical votes” and “turning points.”

That’s in part because inertia is always the default position when any of us are asked to do something complicated. Every day this month, I’ve put off organizing my taxes. Until this week, I spent three months with donations in my trunk that I meant to take to Goodwill. I have books piled by my reading chair that one day I swear I will get to.

And, oh, the last health care deadline the President set? That he would sign a health care bill before he left for a long-planned trip to Indonesia and Australia next week?

Well, the White House just put off that trip — until June.