When the Perfect Becomes the Enemy of the Good

Originally published at The Hill

Healthcare is again center stage. A look at another long-ago healthcare debate offers lessons about how we can improve politics, process, and policy-making today, well beyond that recurring issue.

Against the backdrop of Richard Nixon’s epic fall, it’s too often forgotten that in 1974 — in the midst of Watergate — he proposed a national healthcare system that was more far-reaching than President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which became law a third of a century later.

As president, Nixon worked secretly with then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to craft a compromise that could pass Congress — but, in the end, it was not to be. The negotiations failed in the face of pressure from both sides. But for a window in time, the potential for success was real.

Instead of accepting victory and a dramatic reduction of the uninsured population as most Democrats wanted, the intransigence of a few kept almost 50 million Americans uninsured, and the country waited another 36 years for comprehensive healthcare reform.

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of the unachievable perfect being the enemy of the achievable good.

If Nixon could work with Kennedy, then why can’t people of goodwill on both sides work together today? As just one example where our current Congress has an opportunity for bipartisan agreement on a matter of national importance, I’d like to suggest the increasingly pointless debate over just which process should be used for protecting “net neutrality.”

After more than a decade of often partisan debate, there now is broad consensus that federal law should assure an open internet with broadband providers respecting the right of consumers to access content without interference. Broadband providers have fully integrated net neutrality principles into their network operations, and internet companies depend on it to reach their customers. Respect for net neutrality has become business as usual.

A Democratic-led FCC adopted a net neutrality rule using longstanding statutory authority in 2010, but that was not enough for some on the left who fought to have broadband providers reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act, utility-style regulation designed for the monopoly telephone era. Partly in response to these calls, early in 2015, another Democratic-led FCC applied Title II to broadband.

Before the rule change, it was argued that Title II would create regulatory uncertainty and deter investment. Following Title II reclassification, there was a marked reduction in broadband expenditures by the major carriers. Now, it’s virtually certain that the Republican-led FCC will adopt a rule eliminating Title II regulation of broadband unless Congress acts first. Less certain is whether a new FCC rule would adequately protect net neutrality principles. In the absence of a statute putting the matter to rest, a return to the wearisome “Title II Net Neutrality” debate at the FCC the next time a Democrat is elected president is also likely.

Just as in 1974, when a window existed for bipartisan approval of a sweeping healthcare reform, today’s Congress has an equally promising opportunity to pass legislation putting the net neutrality debate to rest. The formulation is simple and offers each side victory in achieving its major goal. Democrats would receive permanent statutory protection for strong net neutrality protections. Republicans would receive permanent classification of broadband as an information service regulated lightly under Title I of the Communications Act. Most importantly, a debate that began in the middle of the last decade would finally end.

Kennedy came to realize, too late, that he should have made a deal based on Nixon’s proposals. In fact, he said that not doing so was his greatest regret.

In his plea for reform, Nixon wrote, “let us act sensibly.” That plea resonates as fully for broadband deployment in 2017 as it did for healthcare in 1974. Those on the Democratic left should not let their view of the “perfect” net neutrality solution be the enemy of the good and the achievable. It’s better for Congress to act sensibly, adopt bipartisan net neutrality legislation and at last bring finality to a fruitless debate.

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