Reconciliation, Health Care, and History
Political scientists Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein argues that, contrary to Republican claims, the reconciliation process is neither illegitimate nor rare.
Reconciliation was intended to be a narrow procedure to bring revenues and spending into conformity with the levels set in the annual budget resolution. But it quickly became much more. The 22 reconciliation bills so far passed by Congress (three of which were vetoed by President Bill Clinton) have included all manner of budgetary and policy measures: deficit reductions and increases; social policy bills like welfare reform; major changes in Medicare and Medicaid; large tax cuts; and small adjustments in existing law. Neither party has been shy about using this process to avoid dilatory tactics in the Senate; Republicans have in fact been more willing to do so than Democrats.
The history is clear: While the use of reconciliation in this case — amending a bill that has already passed the Senate via cloture — is new, it is compatible with the law, Senate rules and the framers’ intent.
But the accompanying graphic actually belies that argument:
Almost every act passed under reconciliation (8/15) has in fact been a budget bill. And most of those that weren’t (5/7) were tax bills. The two outliers: The 1996 welfare reform act and the 2007 student aid package. Why those were passed under reconciliation isn’t made clear.
What’s also interesting is that the vast majority of these bills were absolute slam dunks. Most (8/15) were passed by filibuster-proof supermajorities, meaning that reconciliation wasn’t used as an end-around to avoid a cloture vote.
The argument that Republicans were more likely to use the process than Democrats is meaningless, simply reflecting the fact that Republicans have dominated the Senate over the period in question. Reconciliation was used six times during the Reagan administration but only once on a bill that didn’t have supermajority support. The Republicans controlled the Senate for all but the last of those votes. The Democrats then used it for two borderline votes. The Republicans used it for two slam dunks, one vote that didn’t quite have a filibuster-proof margin, and one 51-50 vote in which VP Cheney had to break the tie.
The bottom line is that using reconciliation as an end-around to avoid filibusters is exceedingly rare, having happened at most 7 times since 1980. Of those 7 cases, all were budget or tax measures. So, using reconciliation to avoid a supermajority on health care reform would simply be unprecedented.