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The recent history of reconciliation


NPR's Julie Rovner has a fantastic article explaining that the reconciliation process has actually been used for almost all major pieces of health-care legislation passed over the past 20 years. COBRA -- which stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, but has come to mean the much-beloved program that lets you keep your health insurance when you lose your job -- was done in reconciliation. The Children's Health Insurance Program was done in reconciliation. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which is the legislation that tells hospitals that take Medicare and Medicaid that they have to at least screen any patient who enters the emergency room, regardless of insurance status, was done through reconciliation. Welfare reform, which disentangled Medicaid from welfare, was done in reconciliation.

Need I go on?

Elsewhere, political scientist Joshua Tucker found a Congressional Research Service report (pdf) listing every time reconciliation was used between 1981 and 2005, and he built a rough model testing which party used the process more frequently. During that period, there were 19 reconciliation bills, 11 of which were signed by Republican presidents, five of which were signed by Democratic presidents, three of which were vetoed by Democratic presidents, and none of which were vetoed by Republican presidents. "By my admittedly simple classification scheme," Tucker concludes, "this would suggest that 14 of the 19 times reconciliation was used between FY1981 - FY2005, it was used to advance Republican interests."

The real story lurking in these arguments is that reconciliation has become the normal process for many of the most important bills in recent years. The Bush tax cuts went through reconciliation. Welfare reform went through reconciliation. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 went through reconciliation. We've never really discussed the fact that we have a majority-rules process tucked inside the supermajority Senate (in part because the realization that we have a supermajority Senate is relatively recent), but it's been key to getting anything done for at least 20 years now, and it will be an even more constant presence in the next 20 years.

Update: Tim Noah has more on the specific case of welfare reform.

Photo credit: Evan Vucci/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 24, 2010; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Congress , Government  
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Next: What the Senate proved


"COBRA -- which stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, but has come to mean the much-beloved program that lets you keep your health insurance when you lose your job"

Much beloved by who? I've never known a single person who loved having to actually pay sticker price out of their own pockets for the gold plated luxurious corporate plans delivered to them via the American taxpayer and the grossly inequitable employer exclusion. It's an incredible reality check.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 24, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Found this on the dregs of the internets...

I couldn't stop cringing the whole time.

Is there a logical, good reason to have been against the nuclear option as presented by Republicans but for a rule change now (via the "Constitutional" option at the beginning of the next congress)?

Maybe you could argue it's about process?

Posted by: cbaratta | February 24, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

People might be glad that COBRA exists, because having insurance is better than not.

But no one "loves" it.

Posted by: ajw_93 | February 24, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Since the filibuster has become so routine, why haven't the work-arounds also just become routine?

Here's new bill. Oh, you're going to filibuster? Big surprise. Don't bother, we'll just add it to the "reconciliation" pile.

And for every appointment the president (every president) should just make his nomination and say: Please provide your advice and consent. You've got 3 months. If you don't get around it it, I'm going to make a recess appointment because I have a government to run.

Just go around it every time. When the fillibuster stops being effective it'll stop being routine.

Posted by: bswainbank | February 24, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

People "love" COBRA because some of them are unlucky enough to have things like heart disease (think Cheny) or cancer and cannot afford to be without health insurance if they loose a job. Their pre-existing conditions preclude obtaining insurance on the private market and make that corporate group rate look AWESOME...

What happens after 18 months of course is... well lets just say that they better have another job by 18 months and they better hope they (or a spouse) stays well enough to work and can find a job w/ good benefits.

And thus we need the democrats to PASS THE BILL!

Posted by: lazza11 | February 24, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

cbaratta, the nuclear option proposed by Republicans was a power grab because it was a threat intended to allow immediate progression of the Republican agenda. Eliminating the filibuster at the start of a session, especially if it's eliminated at a delayed timeframe as Ezra and others have suggested, is not a simple attempt for the majority to get its way in the face of the rules. The Senate is broken and the filibuster is a big part of that. Still, it shouldn't be eliminated because the majority is frustrated by the failure to confirm a particular nominee or to pass a particular piece of legislation. It should be eliminated because the Senate will work better without it.

Posted by: MosBen | February 24, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

"People might be glad that COBRA exists, because having insurance is better than not.

But no one "loves" it."

Yes. And because so many employees live from paycheck to paycheck, they can't even afford to maintain their coverage under COBRA when they are laid off, so to them COBRA is essentially meaningless.

COBRA is very helpful to a well-compensated executive with a generous severance package, but to an ordinary worker? Not so much.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 24, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

MosBen, if one year or three years from now, the Senate makeup is 53 GOP / 47 DEM will you, Ezra and other Dems be so animated to remove the filibuster "because the Senate will work better without it"?

Spin it how you like, but arguing to remove the filibuster at this moment is not philisophical. It's the current liberal tactic to pass an unpopular President's unpopular healthcare plan. You guys assume to know better than the public what's good for the public, and you cannot accept that we don't want these Dem versions of healthcare overhaul.

Posted by: superman32 | February 24, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I don't have strong feelings about reconciliation for health reform as a process matter, but I think it's not quite refined enough to note that it has often been used for health measures, but whether (and this may be equally true) it has been used specifically to overcome filibusters on party-line votes. To the extent it may be a political risk, that's the fault line along which the argument will be made, I would think. From the links I've read, this is not yet clear to me. It's possible, of course, that the only reason to ever do reconciliation is to avoid the filibuster, and that the answer to my question is just that basic.

That's not my sense of much of the history, though. Rather, the usual reason for doing stuff in reconciliation was that it was that people felt compelled to vote for the reconciliation, and would swallow what they wouldn't have voted for on its own as a free standing bill. But that's not the case here, so I do think there's something slightly different going on (both factors were at play in welfare reform, it seems from the Noah piece, but esp. the possibility of the filibuster).

But I could be wrong--Ezra or anyone else know?

Posted by: FrBill1 | February 24, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

when the republican's where in control.. the dem's hated reconcillation.. check this out..

now that they are in control.. the want to use it.. please HyPOCRITES - both parties..
I have an idea .. how about passing a law for term limits and that when a congress person leaves gov't the can not become a lobbyist but have to go back to doing what htey did before. such as a lawyer, doctor what ever it maybe.. but the hypocrisy has gotten to be too much... how stupid do all of you in govt and the media think the country is..

Posted by: sokica | February 24, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Superman 32 nailed it. The liberal media and the dunces in Washington are all for changing the rules when it doesn't look like things will fall their way. It will be really enjoyable to watch 15 Senate democrats wake up to the fact that Obama and his healthcare are both bankrupting the country and costing them their jobs. If the bill passes at least a few of the idiots will get voted out of office. And don't forget to take Queen Nancy and 50 house members with you!

Posted by: doug1945 | February 24, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

First of all, the bills mentioned enjoyed bi-partisan support.

Secondly, and more important, they were insignificant compared to the complicated monstrosity being proposed as a health care plan, which represents 16% of the national economy, is viewed by the majority of Americans as a government takeover of their Constitutional Freedoms and will break the country.

Scraping through with 51 votes is NOT the way to treat Americans. If it's such a great idea, why does support continue to fall?

Posted by: fdohlin | February 24, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

P.S. Isn't that Chris Dodd among the gleeful senators in an obviously bi-partisan signing ceremony photo?????????

I doubt the health care detachable bill under discussion will have any bi-partisan support, God forbid it get that far.

Posted by: fdohlin | February 24, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Superman32, what most people don’t like about the current healthcare bill is that it doesn’t have what all of the democratic candidates ran on in 2008 which 70% of the country supported then chiefly because it’s been so watered down thanks to obstructionist conservatives (democratic or republican). Of course when you’re content to constantly tell bald faced lies about it and have that part of the story on an endless loop on Faux News, it’s going to become less popular despite the few improvements it will make. A single payer system, which I prefer, probably won’t happen for quite some time, particularly in light of the misinformation that poses as news.

Despite the seeming unfairness of the filibuster when employed by either party, it probably needs to be there. It’s supposed to be using sparingly unlike the ridiculous amount the republicans have used but they have no shame, witness the aforesaid bald faced lies. If reconciliation is the path to get there then so be it.

Posted by: berts8187 | February 24, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

When you want to take from the masses and give to the few elites, in a democracy, double-standards must exist all over the place. Basic math.

The 'appropriate' use of the filibuster and reconciliation are just two of these. Sure, R's are on-board with transferring the nation's wealth to the very rich folks, but D's allow the game to be played that way.

When did they try to filibuster a bill that the super-wealthy wanted? Oil company handouts? Estate tax cuts? I'm sure reconciliation was appropriate for exploding our deficits, if it had the right backers.

One gets paid for doing the work, the other for not getting in the way.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | February 24, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

berts8187, your comments are unfortunate and ill-informed. Obama's campaign rhetoric was health coverage for everyone at lower cost and by the way you can keep your current plan if you want. The reason that didn't play out in the bill is not because of "conservative obstructionists", but because there's no way that was ever going to be possible. Take off your emotional hat for a moment and put on your thinking cap. How in the world can anyone expect to cover 30-40 million more people and reduce costs? It's impossible. I don't care how many charts, graphs or pivot tables Ezra Klein shows to the contrary. Unfortunately, a year ago much of our electorate were caught up in the moment of this "transformational figure" and suspended reason and common sense on a number of topics. Sound byte campaign slogans about healthcare and 2,700 page bills about healthcare are two disperate things and never the twain shall meet.

Posted by: superman32 | February 24, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

I believe FrBill1 is pretty close to the mark here. Klein should have dug a little further to truly understand the circumstances of previous reconciliation votes as compared to the proposed use of it today to pass health care reform. I don't know for a fact, but I certainly do not recall any kind of debate over previous issues that came anywhere near today's level of national interest, and thus my sense would be that it was used previously as the technical, procedural tool it was intended. After all, of the 19 instances cited only 3 were vetoed.

In any event, all of this serves merely to mask the bigger issue. Transforming 1/6 of our nation's economy as fundamentally as is being proposed demands more than 51%. It just does. The American people are clearly split with a fairly clear majority at this point actually being opposed to the measure. Just because the Dems can do this doesn't mean that they should. In fact they should carefully study the concept of "tyranny of the majority" before pulling this trigger. It would be plain wrong for the country.

cbaratta's post that include's the breitbart link is also on the money. It wouldn't hurt for EK and others in the MSM to look at those clips of Dems blasting Repubs for considering the "nuclear option" under Bush and putting some very direct questions to each and every one of them - Obama, Biden, Reid, Clinton, Dodd, Feinstein, Schumer.. each of them forcefuly arguing against the propriety of such a move (even referencing the tyranny of the majority argument!).

If I'm not mistaken, the Repubs considered it back then out of frustration over judicial appointments, and a strong case could be made that this was a very different scenario and, in fact, one that was more justifiable. Since the Constitution grants the Senate "advise and consent" powers in these instances, there is a legitimate debate about the propriety of the fillibuster here. On legislative policy, however, there is no such doubt. Regardless, perhaps the ultimate point to be made here is that Republicans eventually acquiesced to the arguents put forward by the Dems and others and decided against the nuclear option. Obama, Reid and company would be well-advised to do the same.

Posted by: jpeppe | February 24, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the lighthearted review of past "reconcile" legislation. My question of you is this: do you have a point or a position or do you just like using space?

Posted by: connyankee1 | February 24, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

bgmma50, let me introduce myself. When I was down sized several years ago, I was able to keep my company insurance, intact, for the same price the company was paying for my participation, $212 a month. Because of COBRA! For nearly a year, until I was eligible for employer sponsored insurance again. I LOVE COBRA, and you should take your head out of Rushes backside, look around, and discover the world you are really living in.

Posted by: jamessyl | February 24, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

COBRA quite possibly saved my life.There are millions of us these days who love COBRA.

When my job was eliminated last year, along with 3/4 of our staff, I chose to sign up for COBRA because I had no job prospects. During a subsequent checkup, I asked my doctor an offhand question about what I thought was a minor symptom. He sent me to an ENT specialist who had me get an MRI. I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Fortunately, I came out of surgery with no problems, and all bills were paid.

Without COBRA, I would have been unable to obtain private insurance at that time, the tumor probably would have gone undetected until it was far more dangerous, and who knows how long it would have been before I discovered I was incapacitated and possibly terminal.

So, thank you, COBRA, and everyone who helped get that passed through reconciliation.

And thank you, Ezra Klein, for your ongoing great work on these issues.

Posted by: Parker24 | February 24, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Every time reconciliation has been used by the Federal government to solve a spending problem that heaps additional costs on US citizens it has failed.
All this procedure does is kick the can down the road to be solved by future generations.

Posted by: rteske | February 25, 2010 6:06 AM | Report abuse

This is silly - "bad for the country"? Yeah, some people might pay a little more in taxes - whah freakin' whah... the 30+ million people who get health insurance won't think it's bad. The people who won't have to worry about being dropped by a pre-existing condition won't think it's bad. The potential for lower costs per person won't be a bad thing if they happen in a few years. Or we can just sit back and watch health care costs go up 15%/year... I'm sure that's sustainable. Geesh.

Posted by: tillyman72 | February 25, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: bluelagoon21 | February 26, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

Democrats had the Senate in 1985.

Posted by: win1 | February 26, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse


This Brand New, 5-Star Hilarious and Shocking Video provides a Fast-Paced Look at the No-Lie-Too-Big, Socialist Ideologues Who Now Run Our Country.


Posted by: CommieBlaster | February 26, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

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