Op-Ed

Reconciling with the Past

Thomas E. Mann, Norman Ornstein and Raffaela Wakeman

With President Obama and Congressional Democrats intent on one last push for health care reform, the main Republican talking point is outrage over the likely use of the reconciliation process to pass a separate House-Senate compromise. The Republicans’ best hopes of killing health reform rest on the use of a filibuster in the Senate. But bills considered under reconciliation cannot be filibustered and therefore can pass the Senate by a simple majority vote.

Bill Frist, a former Senate majority leader, called reconciliation an “arcane” procedure that Congress has “never used … to adopt major, substantive policy change.” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee asserted that this parliamentary tactic was unprecedented for a bill like health reform. Senator John McCain of Arizona said that the use of reconciliation would have “cataclysmic effects.”

So, would reconciliation represent an anomalous and dangerous power grab? The accompanying chart, which lists 15 major reconciliation bills passed by Congress since the process was first used in 1980, provides evidence for assessing that charge.

Reconciliation was intended to be a narrow procedure to bring revenues and spending into conformity with the levels set in the annual budget resolution. But it quickly became much more. The 22 reconciliation bills so far passed by Congress (three of which were vetoed by President Bill Clinton) have included all manner of budgetary and policy measures: deficit reductions and increases; social policy bills like welfare reform; major changes in Medicare and Medicaid; large tax cuts; and small adjustments in existing law. Neither party has been shy about using this process to avoid dilatory tactics in the Senate; Republicans have in fact been more willing to do so than Democrats.

The history is clear: While the use of reconciliation in this case — amending a bill that has already passed the Senate via cloture — is new, it is compatible with the law, Senate rules and the framers’ intent.

Editor’s note: You can view the New York Times chart here

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