The single most important thing Democrats could do for jobs
The arcane rules and regulations governing the 51-vote budget reconciliation process made it a tricky path for health-care reform. But they make it perfect for stimulus. After all, what's dearer to the budget than spending money and changing tax rates?
There are three ways to use the budget reconciliation process for further stimulus. The first is to include a reconciliation "directive" in the next budget. The second is to use the directive that was included in the 2010 budget for health care. And the third is to pass a new directive into the 2010 budget. Because I don't want your eyes to glaze over before you reach the conclusion, I'll put it up at the top: If Democrats want to do this, they can. They can do it on their timetable, and they only need 51 votes.
Using the 2011 budget: The first path, and the most straightforward, would be to include a "budget reconciliation directive" in the 2011 budget. The problem with that path is that it's slow: The next budget is the 2011 budget. It doesn't come up for consideration until April. The stimulus package couldn't really be considered until June or so, and it couldn't take effect until the new year.
The upside is that it preserves Democratic flexibility into 2011. There's a good chance that Democrats will lose seats in the 2010 election, and there's a good chance the economy will need more stimulus in 2011. Democrats would be smart to give themselves the option to pass a stimulus bill with less than 60 votes, even if they don't end up using it. "It ought to be a no-brainer," says Bob Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Using health care: Let's say you want to move faster, however. The stimulus was too small from Day 1. Then the recession got worse, making it much too small. There's no reason that Democrats should wait till 2011 to launch a second assault on unnecessary joblessness. But if you want to pass it through reconciliation, you need a budget directive.
Luckily, there happens to be one lying around. The 2010 budget included an unused directive that was meant for health-care reform. But directives aren't subject-specific. They specify committees, and they specify changes in the deficit, but nothing beyond that. In the Senate, the available budget directive activates the Finance and HELP committees. In the House, it's Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. In both chambers, the directive demands that the legislation improve the deficit by $1 billion over five years. That ties your hands quite a bit, both in what you can do and how much you can spend.
A shiny new directive: The budget reconciliation process originally arose to, well, reconcile budgets. Every year, Congress would pass two of them, one in April and one later in the year. That's fallen by the wayside, and Congress only passes one these days. But Congress still has the option of passing a second budget. They could simply pass a second budget resolution -- which only needs 51 votes, natch -- including a reconciliation directive built specifically for the stimulus package.
To be sure, Democrats have tied their hands a bit. After the Bush administration used budget reconciliation for tax cuts, Democrats passed a rule barring the use of reconciliation to increase the deficit. "Democrats play by the rules," sighs budget expert Stan Collender, "and Republicans play to win." But even here there's flexibility: The directive could order deficit neutrality over a 10-year time frame, which is much easier to do than the five-year window included in the health-care directive.
That leaves Democrats with a menu of options ranging from moving quick to help the economy, all the way to simply preserving the option to pass more stimulus in the future, even if they lose a couple of seats in 2011. To reject all the options, however, would be to willingly disarm in the face of high unemployment and a polarized Senate. "The evidence from 2009 is pretty strong," says Greenstein. "If you want to move a fairly comprehensive agenda in the current environment, you need reconciliation as one of your tools."
There's been a lot of talk lately about the need for Democrats to pivot from health care and demonstrate their seriousness about jobs. There is no first step they could take on that front that would be more important than opening the reconciliation process.
Photo credit: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post.
December 30, 2009; 6:30 PM ET
Categories: Budget , Stimulus
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