In 1965, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, brought legislation establishing Medicare and Medicaid to the floor of the U.S. House. That was my first year in Congress, and I remember vividly the moment when Mills came to the Democratic caucus to explain his plans.
Many of us had been swept into office in the 1964 Democratic wave that accompanied Lyndon Johnson’s election, and we had an overwhelming majority in Congress. We could pass any bill we wanted. But Mills argued forcefully that we shouldn’t. It was crucial, he said, that we get bipartisan support for the measure: passing the law was one thing, but what really counted was its implementation. With bipartisan support, the odds were much higher that the highly controversial measure could be rolled out effectively.
So despite the grumbling of some members of the caucus, Mills made significant accommodations to find common ground with Republicans, and eventually 70 of them — half their caucus — joined us to pass the bill.
Mills was playing a very smart game. What he understood was that in the end, Americans’ lives would be affected not by what happened in Congress, but by what the federal government did with the law it was handed.
There are times these days when a story like that, about someone in Washington caring about the government’s effectiveness, feels as quaint as a tale about knights and dragons. Plenty of good, competent people serve both in Congress and within the ranks of the executive branch, but after years of abject failure — from the response to Hurricane Katrina to the initial rollout of the Affordable Care Act to the cost overruns, delays and mismanagement that too often characterize federal programs — it’s hard to argue the government is filled with people who know how to make it a model of efficiency and effectiveness.