Of the various deficits Washington often wrestles with, one of the most enduring involves shame or, more precisely, the lack of it. This presumably stems less from a character defect of the people who work here than from necessity. Especially in an era of uncertain partisan control, where politicians are routinely yanked back and forth between majority and minority status, abject shamelessness is necessary to behave one way and then indignantly condemn the other party for doing the same thing.
The salient current example of this involves a congressional process called "reconciliation" and the GOP's efforts to stymie President Obama's never-ending quest to reform the healthcare system.
Reconciliation was created in 1974 as an expedited way to bring taxing and spending in line with whatever had been budgeted, specifically with an eye toward closing the budget deficit. Because lawmakers worried that it might be tough to round up 60 Senate votes for politically unpopular tax hikes or budget cuts, they made reconciliation bills filibuster-proof. These exotic creatures could pass the Senate, in other words, with a simple 51-vote majority. To prevent this from becoming a way for any old bill to circumvent the filibuster, the "Byrd Rule" (named for its originator, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd) was added in the 1980s; it stipulated that only things having to do with taxing and spending could be reconciled. Extraneous provisions can be knocked out and are colloquially known as—wait for it—Byrd droppings.
Now comes the health reform debate. Increasingly frantic Republicans warn that Democrats plan to use reconciliation to pass the Obama healthcare bill with a mere majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority, and they say this would abuse a narrow deficit-cutting tool not traditionally used for partisan ends. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch wrote in the Washington Post last week that reconciliation would be "unprecedented in scope. And the havoc wrought would threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, [and] degrade our system of government."
The GOP position here is not only divorced from reality but also wholly lacking in shame.
First, while reconciliation may have been intended as a narrow tool, its scope has long since grown. It has been used to create controversial, partisan programs. Hatch, for example, voted for the 2003 Bush tax cuts, which passed under reconciliation with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Indeed, according to the Congressional Research Service, of 22 reconciliation bills passed through fiscal year 2008, 16 were passed when, as with the deficit-busting Bush tax cuts, Republicans controlled the Senate. Their protestations that reconciliation is a radical or unfamiliar approach ring hollow.
And it's been used to create healthcare programs. If you've ever lost your job but kept your health insurance, it was probably thanks to the 1985 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA. The Children's Health Insurance Program was created under reconciliation. Indeed, National Public Radio concluded that "over the past three decades, the number of major health financing measures that were not passed via budget reconciliation can be counted on one hand."
And if the Obama healthcare bill is enacted, it'll go on that one hand, because despite all of the shouting, it won't be under reconciliation. Remember that the Senate passed the bill on Christmas Eve, with 60 votes. Once the House does the same, Obama can sign it.
Reconciliation comes into play because many House Democrats don't like the Senate's bill and want to tweak it, using reconciliation. Those changes—which include popular ideas like removing the special deals for Nebraska and Louisiana—would go through the Senate under reconciliation rules. Think of it this way: Every major piece of social legislation passed in this country has subsequently been tweaked; the difference here is that the first changes would come hours or days later rather than years.
And this could still fall apart. The House has to pass the Senate health bill before it can pass a reconciliation bill to tweak it. But House Democrats don't have a lot of faith in their upper-chamber colleagues, so Senate Democrats will have to strongly signal that they have 51 votes. "I don't know what the gesture will be, but it will be a convincing gesture," Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin told Politico this week. That and other enduring sticky issues like abortion funding could still scuttle the bill in the House.
And there's a larger problem for Democrats. They may have the facts on their side, but the politics are a separate matter. Process issues don't generally move voters. But if they think an undemocratic process was used to foist an unpopular bill on them, this might be the exception. Reconciliation "feeds into a simple message that the Democrats are doing something that's against the will of the people, that's undemocratic, that involves changing the rules in the middle of the game," says Democratic consultant Douglas Schoen, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
One sign that Democrats are worried about this message battle: They've started avoiding using the word reconciliation. Instead, they're emphasizing the importance of an up-or-down vote (which, by the way, feeds into the incorrect idea that the healthcare bill is going to be voted on again). It's actually a talking point the GOP trotted out when they were in charge and frustrated with filibusters. Back then, it was a matter of principle. Now minority rule is the principle. What a shame.
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