Like many in Washington, I spent Saturday night at home watching C-SPAN as the House debated and ultimately passed a major healthcare reform bill. It was about as exciting as the legislative process gets: a special weekend session, with heated debate over a controversial amendment, impassioned statements from virtually every House heavyweight, and a vote that came down to a thin margin, with a single crossover.
This banner moment marks the closest that the United States has ever come to overhauling its woefully expensive, inefficient, and incomplete healthcare system -- and it felt like a victory. But it marks just one step in what promises to be a long and detailed legislative process. Now, the Senate votes on its healthcare bill, then the two bills are merged, and then both chambers vote again. The remaining process will be highly prone to filibusters from Republicans (and, sigh, Joe Lieberman), and will require extensive negotiation. And this comes after months of wrangling in the Senate and House committees.
While healthcare reform takes its time to pass, two other big bills wait on the sidelines, and governments across the globe wait with them. Indeed, the Senate is, in effect, filibustering the world.
The first back-burnered issue is immigration reform. During his campaign, Obama promised that he would enact comprehensive legislation during his first year in office. It was a heady pledge -- President George W. Bush tried to pass reform during his final term in office, and failed. But it won Obama the support of organizations like the National Council of La Raza and plaudits from governments in Central America, Mexico, and Canada. Then, earlier this year, Obama ingloriously shelved it, laying down a big-bill priority rank with immigration reform taking the bronze. Congress hasn't even started to tackle the issue -- no bills, cosigners, or committee votes yet -- spurring disappointment across the United States' borders and further afield.
The second and vastly more important issue is cap and trade. The House bill passed in June, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing it onto the floor as soon as she had the votes. But leaders in the White House and Congress decided to cool it to preserve votes for healthcare, and Congress won't make law until sometime early next year.
This delay means that the United States will be something of a weak actor at next month's U.N. Copenhagen conference on climate change. Global leaders will hash out the details of a worldwide plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to attempt to stave off anthropogenic climate disaster. Obama will not be one of them because of, well, Congress.
The United States has said any climate change agreements it makes must comport with U.S. law, and U.S. law isn't ready yet. So, Obama has said he will not attend. In the meantime, the United States has actually attempted to weaken many of the most important measures. Washington, under Obama as under Bush, remains the most recalcitrant major player on climate change, even more so than big-emitter Beijing.
European governments, as well as many others, are bewildered if not piqued. During her address to both chambers of Congress last week, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implored lawmakers to tackle climate change "without delay." It was a futile plea, and half of the lawmakers didn't bother to clap.
This isn't to say that Washington should have different legislative priorities, or should have put climate change or immigration reform before healthcare. It isn't to say that Obama should have stepped out on those issues before Congress enacted law. It isn't even to say that Congress should move faster, though I often wish it would.
It is simply to note that the United States is used to waiting for its legislative process to work. The rest of the world isn't. On climate change, especially, the Senate is not just holding up U.S. legislation, but global action. And it remains unclear what that means for foreign policy.