The punditocracy is anxiously war-gaming the expected battles between the Obama Administration and Congress. But while there will be plenty of strong rhetoric and political theatrics on Capitol Hill, much of the real action will occur elsewhere, in administrative and regulatory processes that typically occur offstage.
That probably wasn't included when they taught you in high school about how laws get made. But it's key to how laws really work.
With Democrats controlling the White House and maintaining a narrow majority in the Senate while Republicans run the House of Representatives, big legislation from either party will get blocked by the other. But important decisions will be made in the implementation of major reforms already enacted, particularly financial regulatory reform and health care reform. Yes, there will be fights over funding and contentious congressional hearings, but much of how these new programs will operate on a day to day basis -- and how they will affect ordinary Americans -- will be decided by how rules and regulations are written and how new agencies get organized.
This is a process that advocates will need to keep their eyes on. And it offers the administration ways to show voters the concrete ways these new programs will help ordinary folks. Efforts at bipartisanship in the face of relentless Republican hostility in Congress won't accomplish much, but concrete achievements in implementing these reforms will.
If congressional Republicans make good on their announced plans to use spending bills to try to block parts of health care reform, the administration must move concretely and publicly on the portions of it that give consumers protection against abusive practices by insurers and make it easier for people to obtain affordable coverage. Obscure mechanisms that have important functions -- like insurance exchanges, which will serve to make coverage available and affordable -- need to be made clear and transparent, and kept front and center. If people see how these things will help them, they won't let Republicans block their funding.
The old saying, "The devil's in the details," has never been more true.
And the administration will need to move effectively and aggressively on implementing benefits that are beginning right away, such as the high-risk pools designed to help people suffering from medical conditions that would have left them uninsurable without health care reform. President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Reid have expressed willingness to make small legislative tweaks to the law, but advocates must be on guard to make sure these crucial elements stay untouched.
As I noted last week , we are lucky to have Elizabeth Warren in charge of setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She's serious about making the financial system fair and transparent, and she understands that the proverbial man and woman on the street need to see the CFPB helping them right away.
And there will be a lot on CFPB's plate. The bureau will be able to regulate mortgages, credit cards, payday loans and more, with a focus on the largest banks (over $10 billion in assets) as well as non-bank lending institutions that were previously unregulated. CFPB will have the power to decide if financial products or practices are unfair, abusive or deceptive, and issue rules to prevent future abuses.
Less talked about but also important is an under-the-radar victory earlier this year ended a federal giveaway to private student loan companies. Now, CFPB will have the authority to regulate student loans in line with the Truth in Lending Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Until now, students, who often have little experience in making judgments on credit and interest rates, have been preyed upon by private, often-unregulated lenders. CFPB will have authority to stop these abuses.
Watch how these already-passed laws get implemented. That's where the real action will be.