The chairman of the Budget Committee explains the reconciliation process
As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad actually oversees the reconciliation process when it's used. And that means he knows a lot about it: how it can be used, when it should be used, how it traditionally has been used, and how it can be stopped. We spoke this morning about all of that, and ended up talking more broadly about the ways in which the Senate has diverged from the Founders' intentions and its own historical customs. A transcript follows, with light edits for clarity.
You’ve not been happy with the reporting you’ve seen on the reconciliation process.
I’ve never seen so much misreporting. It’s like they heard the first three sentences of what I said and not the next three.
So then here’s your chance: Explain what’s going on here more fully.
What I’ve said all year is that reconciliation for comprehensive health-care reform wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work for two reasons. First, the Byrd rule. The Byrd rule says that only things that score for budget purposes can be in a reconciliation package. If they don’t score, or the score is only incidental to the aims of the policy, they’re subject to strike. That would mean the insurance market reforms and delivery reforms would be stricken. And many of us believe them to be the most important part of the bill. So I never thought reconciliation would work for a comprehensive bill. But we don’t need to use reconciliation for the comprehensive bill. That bill passed with the supermajority, with 60 votes, not using reconciliation.
If the House passes that legislation as well, it can go straight to the president. But there’s a potential role for reconciliation in what we call a sidecar. It’s there to improve or perfect the package, and it only will include items that score for budgetary purposes.
Many of your Republican colleagues are saying that this is a perversion of democracy or a break with precedent. Sen. Orrin Hatch has an op-ed in The Washington Post today saying that using reconciliation would “threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, degrade our system of government and damage the prospects of bipartisanship.”
I’d just take you back to their own words. Look at what Judd Gregg said when they were trying to use reconciliation to open up drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Preserve. “What’s wrong with using a majority vote?” he said. Chuck Grassley, when he wanted to do tax cuts in reconciliation, argued that Democrats had used that process and so Republicans should be able to do it. So it’s interesting how perspectives change when control changes.
And one more point on this: When Republicans used reconciliation in 2001 for the Bush tax cuts, they used it to increase the deficit. The whole purpose of reconciliation is for deficit reduction! When we regained control, we changed the rules of reconciliation so you couldn’t use a majority vote to increase the deficit. So they took the rule, distorted it, used it to increase the deficit, and when we got in, we changed the rule back to preclude a simple majority vote being used to increase the deficit.
What about the threats to delay the reconciliation process by offering endless amendments?
Here’s what you can do. Reconciliation is limited in time to 20 hours of consideration. At the end of that time, you can continue to offer amendments. You could offer 10,000. But if the parliamentarian judges someone as being dilatory, that can be stopped. If he says they’re just offering amendments to delay final action, he can rule to shut that down.
One of the elements here that I don’t think gets enough attention is the cost imposed by running the Senate according to different loopholes. Only about a quarter of the population knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. And I’d guess virtually none of them realize that it also requires two days to let the motion to break a filibuster ripen, and then another 30 hours of post-cloture debate. So there’s this massive time cost, which some senators are using to make their holds more effective.
Then, with reconciliation, the process is limited, so bills get written to conform more tightly to the budget. That may not be the best or cheapest way, however, to achieve that bill’s goals. So it’s not just that we have a fight over 51 votes or 60 votes, but that in using these processes and loopholes, we’re imposing all sorts of other costs on the process. It would be better if we just decided that legislation will require 51 votes or 60 and did away with these complicating rules.
Republicans are forcing 60 votes even on things that then get overwhelming majority votes, that tells you they’re just being dilatory. These aren’t highly controversial nominations or bills. They’re just doing it to slow walk the Senate of the United States of America. They do this to deny the majority accomplishment.
But I think you touch on something there that’s important to understand. In the beginning days of the U.S. Senate, there was no filibuster. There was not a requirement for a supermajority vote. America was founded on majority rule, not supermajority rule. Somehow, over the years, this has morphed into supermajority rule, and that changes things.
When you go back to talking about the founding of these institutions and checks and balances, the original vision, as I understand it, was that Congress would have a distinct identity that would transcend party. Rather than just being an architecturally distinct building in which parties could compete, Congress was supposed to be in competition with the president for power. But as the filibuster and holds and all the rest become more powerful, other branches of government begin making the decisions that Congress can’t make. You’d think Congress would be unhappy with that state of affairs. Why isn’t there more of an effort to change these rules for the good of the institution, rather than exploit these rules for the good of the parties?
The partisan competition has swamped the shared institutional interests. All senators should have an interest in the institution functioning effectively and fairly. That common interest has been swamped by the desire for partisan control. On this matter, both sides have dirty hands. I might argue the Republicans more so.
Where does it end?
I’m not smart enough to know. For the country’s sake, one hopes that somehow we get this out of our system. But I don’t see much chance of that. If we can’t grapple with these very basic challenges of the country, from deficits and debt to fundamental health-care reform, you really have to wonder what will happen.
You’ve got a lot of relationships across the aisle. Certainly senators from both parties lament the rise of partisanship and the gridlock in the body. Are there ever conversations between members of the two parties about changing these rules, if not for right now then for future congresses?
There are conversations. The thing is that it's always going to be sometime in the sweet by and by. It doesn’t get done. It’s like the process that we have for confirmation. It’s absurd that we have so many positions that require confirmation. One person can put a hold on a nomination.
Or all of them.
Exactly! And not because they disagree with the confirmation of the individual, but because they’re trying to get other concessions.
A related trend we’ve seen this year is the attack on certain elements of the legislative process. In particular, there’s been a real effort to demonize the very idea of private negotiations between legislators and deals that are made to advance legislation. Obviously transparency has its benefits, but these have traditionally been important tools for coaxing people into doing important things that are politically dangerous.
There has never been, to my knowledge, a bill that didn’t involve private negotiations among senators. But one of the people who’s loudly decrying this is Senator Jon McCain. People should ask him if he was involved in closed-door discussions on averting the nuclear option? Because yes, he was. Or whether he was present in closed-door negotiations on immigration reform? Because yes, he was. So why all of a sudden is that evil, or bad, or immoral?
Every single senator has engaged in precisely those kinds of talks to resolve complicated matters. When you’re having a discussion to try to reach an agreement, people have to be able to think outside the box. They have to be able to weigh options, and if you do it all in public, things will never be considered because people will fear the reaction. You have to have a certain level of discussion that’s outside the media glare.
My understanding is that deals to advantage certain states have been similarly omnipresent over time. Putting aside the merits of the Nelson deal, which I didn’t think was that big of an issue, it wasn’t a conceptually different type of thing. There are smokestacks in Tennessee that are exempt from the Clean Air Act, for instance.
The truth is the Nelson deal was an irrelevant deal. There’s no such thing as a deal in perpetuity, because a current Congress can’t bind a future Congress. But demonizing these deals is also doing a real blow to people that represent states like mine that are small-population states. Our states are, by their very nature, different than large-population states. And one reason the Founding Fathers thought that states should have two senators was so that smaller states wouldn’t get run over and could bring their interests to the attention of the Senate more broadly.
Photo credit: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg.
Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Lomillialor | March 2, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: theorajones1 | March 2, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: vinod_wp | March 2, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Beagle1 | March 2, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jwellington1 | March 2, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 2, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: CommieBlaster | March 2, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jkaren | March 2, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Holla26 | March 2, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: HotDem | March 2, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Narquan | March 2, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: MosBen | March 2, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: MosBen | March 2, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Lomillialor | March 2, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: NeoConVeteran | March 2, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: smtenof | March 2, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: KrisinAL | March 2, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: redhawk2 | March 2, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bgmma50 | March 2, 2010 9:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Ja4879 | March 2, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: thefourthbranchcom | March 2, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mickster1 | March 3, 2010 2:05 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: jonboinAR | March 3, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: blakely1 | March 3, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: SamanthaAdams | March 3, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: SamanthaAdams | March 3, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: madjoy | March 4, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.