September 23, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care
The details of President Obama's push for comprehensive health care reform get more baffling every day. The debate recently became even more complicated with the introduction of another term: "Reconciliation." Millions of Americans already recognize that politicians are trying to confuse the debate as a way to sneak through the most comprehensive change to our health care laws in our lifetime. That's why everyone needs to understand the "inside the beltway" procedures that liberals in Congress could use to railroad through a partisan and unpopular health care bill.
What is Reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a creation of the 1974 Budget Act and has been used to pass tax cuts and deficit reductions. Remember the Bush Tax Cuts of 2001 and 2003? They were creations of the reconciliation process. It's supposed to be a tool Congress uses to balance the budget. The problem is that the liberals in Congress may be able to use reconciliation to pass Obamacare despite opposition by many members of Congress. This step would severely hamper the rights of congressmen and senators to participate in the debate.
Reconciliation is a complicated procedure that's used by leadership to pass legislation without using the usual rules of the Senate or House. The Senate traditionally promotes unlimited debate and amendments, but reconciliation temporarily tosses aside those rules for one bill.
For a reconciliation bill, no filibusters are allowed. Also, while it usually requires a supermajority of 60 Senators to silence a Senator who's using unlimited debate to hold up a measure, in reconciliation it only takes 51 votes to shut down the process and pass a bill.
Remember Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A great movie where Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, gets appointed to the Senate and submits legislation to authorize the federal government to loan money to buy some land for a national boy's camp. Sen. Smith ends up using a filibuster to convince the American people and other senators that he is an honest man after being wrongly accused of corruption. Although the senate has changed quite a bit in the last 70 years, the right to filibuster is still allowed in the Senate with the exception of a reconciliation debate.
What is the Byrd Rule?
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia wrote a history of the Senate and is known to be the guardian of Senate traditions. He was never a big fan of the reconciliation process, so he created a rule that allows Senators to remove extraneous provisions in reconciliation legislation unless those provisions directly relate to changes in the levels of federal spending, taxes or debt.
If the President attempts to use reconciliation to pass comprehensive health care reform, a single Senator could use the Byrd Rule to remove controversial policy provisions in the bill. If, for example, the "public option" is in the Senate bill, a single senator could invoke the "Byrd Rule." Then it would take 60 votes to keep that provision in the final bill. At least, that's how the process is supposed to work.
Can Reconciliation Help Pass Obamacare?
Yes. The left has been exploring ways to use the Reconciliation process to pass Obamacare. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said this week that he has chosen to use the reconciliation tool to get the bill passed.
When Congress passed the budget, it set in place a process to pass health care reform, education reform and climate change legislation. In the House, the budget instructed the Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee to come up with $1 billion in deficit reductions for health care reform. In the Senate, the budget did the same for the Senate Finance and Health Committee (HELP). If lawmakers can come up with $1 billion in fake savings, they could use reconciliation to pass Obamacare.
However, Mike Solon -- former policy advisor to both Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former Sen. Phil Gramm -- identifies a major hurdle for the liberals. Solon argues that it would be very difficult for proponents of Obamacare to navigate "the tight budgetary constraints imposed by the Budget Act, the budget resolution and the Byrd Rule." He further argues that the biggest obstruction is "the Byrd Rule prohibition that no reconciliation bill can make the deficit worse outside the budgetary window." This means that any provision in the legislation that's expected to cost taxpayers, even 10 years down the road, would doom the prospects of passage of the bill. There is only so far that the left can game the system.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that this debate over reconciliation is make-or-break for the left. Many in Washington are worried that the individual who advises the Senate on the rules, Alan Frumin (the Senate Parliamentarian), most likely will interpret the rules to allow Obamacare easier passage. Yet no matter how much the liberals game the system, it will be difficult to pass everything President Obama wants in the reconciliation process.
Reconciliation and the Byrd Rule are terms that have been added to the Obamacare debate, along with the terms "public plan," "pre-existing conditions," "death panels," "mandatory abortion coverage," "employer mandates," "individual mandates," "exchanges," "co-ops," "taxes," "fees" and "socialism." One hopes that the Tea Parties, Town Halls and September 12th patriots will be listened to by politicians so they don't use reconciliation to railroad through a wildly unpopular Obamacare.
Reconciliation is complicated, but all you need to know is that it is a way Congress could implement heath care reform that millions of Americans oppose. Still, if politicians don't listen to the American people, in 2010 many may have to reconcile the fact that they're not Members of Congress anymore.
Brian Darling is director of U.S. Senate Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Human Events