Step by Step
Incremental improvements are better than comprehensive reforms.


And how can a senator be so sure that some provision stuck into a 2,700-page partisan bill in secret meetings and voted on during a snowstorm at 1 a.m. won’t come back around and slap him or her in the face — how can he explain why Nebraska got a “Cornhusker kickback” to pay for its Medicaid expansion and his state didn’t?

Wilson also wrote that respect for the law of unintended consequences “is not an argument for doing nothing, but it is one, in my view, for doing things experimentally. Try your idea out in one place and see what happens before you inflict it on the whole country.”

If you examine the Congressional Record, you will find that Republican senators have been following Wilson’s advice, proposing a step-by-step-approach to confronting our nation’s challenges 173 different times during 2009. On health care, we first suggested setting a clear goal: reducing cost. Then, we proposed the first six steps toward achieving that goal: (1) allowing small businesses to pool their resources to purchase health-care plans, (2) reducing junk lawsuits against doctors, (3) allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines, (4) expanding health savings accounts, (5) promoting wellness and prevention, and (6) taking steps to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. We offered these six proposals in complete legislative text totaling 182 pages. The Democratic majority rejected all six, and ridiculed the approach — in part because it wasn’t “comprehensive.”

And in July, all 40 Republican senators announced agreement upon four steps to produce low-cost clean energy and create jobs: (1) create 100 nuclear power plants, (2) electrify half our cars and trucks, (3) explore offshore for natural gas and oil, and (4) double energy research and development.

This step-by-step Republican clean-energy plan is an alternative to the Kerry-Boxer National Energy Tax, which would impose an economy-wide cap-and-trade scheme, driving businesses overseas to look for cheap energy and collecting hundreds of billions of dollars each year for a slush fund with which Congress can play.

Here’s another example. In 2005, a bipartisan group of members of Congress asked the National Academies to identify the first ten steps Congress should take to preserve America’s competitive advantage so we can keep adding jobs. The Academies appointed a distinguished panel that recommended 20 such steps. Congress enacted two-thirds of them. The America COMPETES Act of 2007 was far-reaching legislation, but it was fashioned step-by-step.

When I was governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, my goal was to raise family incomes in what was then the third-poorest state. I found that the best way to move toward that goal was step-by-step. Some steps were smaller, some larger; they included amending banking laws, defending right-to-work policies, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting the auto industry, building four-lane highways for auto suppliers, and enacting a ten-step “Better Schools” plan, one step of which made Tennessee the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. I did not try to turn our entire state upside down all at once. Working with leaders in both parties, I helped it change and grow step-by-step. Within a few years, Tennessee became the fastest-growing state in family incomes.

Tuesday’s election in Massachusetts is the latest reminder that the American people are tired of risky comprehensive schemes featuring taxes, debt, Washington takeovers, and lots of hidden and unexpected surprises. It is time to declare that the era of the thousand-page bill is over. A wiser approach is to set a clear goal, such as reducing health-care costs, take a few steps in that direction, and then a few more, so that we can start solving our country’s problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.

– Lamar Alexander is a U.S. senator from Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on the Senate floor last Thursday.