WASHINGTON - If the old adage is true that too many cooks spoil the broth, then health care reform legislation is already in big trouble.
Several news papers have printed flow charts illustrating the process the legislation will take through Congress. They all look like mazes that would drive a rat out of its mind.
Consider this: Three committees in the House and two in the Senate have jurisdiction over health care issues. That means each committee will be hammering out its own version of a bill.
The number of lawmakers involved is staggering. The two Senate committees - the Finance Committee, and Labor and Human Resources - together have 35 members. In the House, it's even worse: the three committees - Ways and Means, Education and Labor, and Energy and Commerce - have a total of 121 members.
That's 156 cooks. More than enough to spoil the most well-intentioned bill.
That's not all. An additional six committees in the House and another five in the Senate are permitted to make recommendations about health care reform as it relates to their areas of business. For example, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee can comment on how reform will affect veterans' medical benefits and the Senate Indian Affairs committee can chip in with suggestions about health care benefits for Native Americans.
For advocates of municipal bonds, the initial tracking of the process is simple: any issues that might relate to the tax-exempt bond market will be acted on only in the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees, which are the sole panels with jurisdiction over tax matters.
But the bill written by Ways and Means, like that of its counterpart in the Senate, will contain more than just tax matters. Because Ways and Means shares jurisdiction with the Energy and Commerce panel over Medicare issues, Ways and Means will be drafting a full-blown bill that somehow will have to be reconciled with the bills of the energy panel and the education committee. Only one bill can be brought to the House floor.
It's unlikely that the House leadership will permit a free-for-all and let the various bills be considered separately. The same bottleneck, though on a smaller scale, will occur in the Senate.
At this point, if you're an avowed Capitol Hill watcher, you should be feeling a sense of deja vu. Every time Congress tries to draft a comprehensive budget-cutting measure, the multiple-chef problem seems to pop up.
Maybe the way to rein in the health care legislation process is to do what the congressional leadership likes to do whenever there's a big budget bill that no one can agree on: hold a "summit."
Back in 1990, the last time a budget accord was reached, the Democrat-controlled Congress spent months wrangling with President Bush over deficit reduction legislation. Early in September, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the process, top leaders finally abandoned normal, unwieldy legislative procedures and trooped off to Andrews Air Force Base.
There, in about one week, House and Senate leaders along with a handful of key committee chairmen, including Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, and a few top White House officials drafted the outlines of a budget agreement that later passed both houses and was signed into law.
Fast forward to this year. Trying to reform the health care system is a process that promises to be just as contentious as cutting the deficit was four years ago. Allowing the involvement of 16 committee chairmen and a couple hundred rank-and-file law-makers seems certain to produce a hodgepodge of proposals around which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to build a consensus.
So don't be surprised if we have a health care reform summit later this year. Here's the recipe: put the five congressional committee chairmen with primary jurisdiction over health care in a room with the House speaker and Senate majority leader, add a sprinkling of administration officials, and lock the door until they're finished.
You certainly won't get a bill that everyone will agree on, but at least you'll get a bill.