Forging Ahead — Embracing the “Reconciliation” Option for Reform

Henry J. Aaron
Henry J. Aaron The Bruce and Virginia MacLaury Chair, Senior Fellow Emeritus - Economic Studies

February 10, 2010

The course of health care reform in 2009 resembled the silent movie series “The Perils of Pauline,” in which each episode began with a threat to the heroine’s life but ended with her salvation.

Despite repeated near-death experiences, reform legislation passed both houses of Congress. After so many obstacles had been surmounted, the remaining task of reconciling the House and Senate bills seemed doable.

Then, a political earthquake hit. Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts senatorial seat that had been held for 47 years by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, thwarting the capacity of the remaining 57 Democrats and two independents to bring anything to a vote in the Senate over the united opposition of the 41 Republicans.

The election also caused something approaching a panic attack among White House and congressional Democrats, who called variously for dropping health care reform, trying to pass one scaled-back bill or several smaller bills, moving slowly on doing anything, seeking compromise with Republicans on some (unspecified) new approach, or having the House pass the Senate bill subject to modifications, which both houses would pass separately, to make the Senate bill acceptable to the House. Passing the fixes in the last of these options hinged on using “reconciliation,” a procedure that requires only a majority vote but that can be used only to implement instructions contained in the budget resolution relating to taxes or expenditures. Passage of the modifications would follow House approval of the Senate-passed bill.