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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 11, 2010; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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There is no reason Dems couldn't use reconciliation to improve HCR after initial passage--except that they just don't care. And if they don't care, come November 2010 I don't care.

Posted by: bmull | January 11, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

bmull, did you even read the post you commented on?

Using reconciliation to pass health care legislation is like trying to use a hammer to insert wood screws: by the time the process is over, you may have in some sense achieved your goal, but everything is so busted that there was no point.

Posted by: dal20402 | January 11, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I read the post and I don't agree. Reconciliation was used to pass for three Bush tax cuts. There is no reason it can't be used to increase subsidies. There is no reason it can't be used to expand safety net programs. Dems need to stop worrying and get it done.

Posted by: bmull | January 11, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I think people are consistently wrongheaded about using reconciliation for big ticket items like Heath Care Reform.

You wouldn't do that. However you could use reconciliation to do all sorts of simple things that would force the other party to come to the table and negotiate in good faith on the big ticket issues.

So e.g. Monday morning the 55 most progressive Democrats walk in and start passing things that are pretty simple reconciliation-wise. They announce say 60 bills they plan to pass via reconciliation over the next say 60 days if Republicans continue with all these holds and filibusters.

The things they announce are mostly populist, consumer protection things. Some of these are fluff, already covered by law. Some are simple populist plays, anti-banker stuff. And some are serious anti-lobbying provisions that a lot of democrats aren't crazy about passing but hopefully they won't have to pass those things at the end.

Anyway either the Republicans get so much heat from their corporate masters that they come to the table or the Democrats drive the news cycle with their accomplishments for 2 straight months leading up to the election.

Posted by: Steko | January 12, 2010 4:27 AM | Report abuse

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