The problems with budget reconciliation
I've long compared the budget reconciliation process to deciding legislation on penalty kicks. Mark Schmitt, however, has a better analogy:
While budget reconciliation is sometimes referred to as "the 50-vote Senate," that's a bit of a misnomer -- it is at the other extreme from the filibuster-paralyzed Senate. Budget reconciliation is a rough, nasty process in which a handful of party and committee leaders write a bill that can barely be debated or amended at all. Not only is there a 20-hour time limit on debate, but amendments are so severely constrained in scope that most are rewritten as meaningless "sense of the Senate" resolutions and are voted on in a massive stack with no debate at the end of the 20 hours, a process so familiar that it's earned it's own name: vote-a-rama.
And because budget reconciliation was designed for a completely different purpose it makes an awkward fit for big policy initiatives. It's like entering a house through the pet door instead of the front door -- you might fit, if you twist just the right way, but it will be painful.
Provisions that don't directly affect the budget can't be included, so, for example, much of the fine detail of health-insurance regulation in the current bill would likely have been lost if pushed through reconciliation. If Congress chose reconciliation as the means to pass a jobs bill, it could include tax credits for job creation but probably not many of the infrastructure-spending initiatives that would directly create jobs. These limitations may seem absurd, as they did to the Bush administration officials who inserted a cartoon into the 2003 budget depicting Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians as a symbol of the limits on budget reconciliation. But that's because budget reconciliation was never intended to be a 50-vote Senate. The alternative to negotiating with the minority party is negotiating with these awkward rules.
Schmitt goes on to argue that that filibuster reform should be paired with budget reconciliation reform. If the minority agrees to change "the rigid, partisan system of near-total stasis created by the filibuster," Schmitt says, the majority should be prepared to "offer the minority party a reform of the power of budget reconciliation that currently cuts them out entirely." That would be a good deal from the perspective of the Senate as an institution, but it's hard to say who would take it: Any serious reform of the filibuster would give the majority party a lot more power than budget reconciliation offers.
January 11, 2010; 4:08 PM ET
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