Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Democrats Ponder Budget Reconciliation on Health Care

Despite commanding a 60-40 majority in the U.S. Senate, Democrats have thus far struggled to push their health care reform agenda past the committee level. The threat of a Republican filibuster has served as the primary deterrent to this point, however, some Democrats have recently begun suggesting the use of the budget reconciliation process in order to bypass the need for a filibuster-proof majority.

The Budget Reconciliation Process has it's origins in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, and was originally intended to allow Congress to pursue deficit reduction measures in an expedited fashion. In the years following 1974 though, reconciliation became somewhat bastardized, as it was commonly deployed to increase government spending in targeted portions of the budget - often in violation of committee jurisdictions, and without the usual time for debate. In reaction to widespread abuse of the reconciliation process, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) led an effort to reform the process with the introduction of what is now known as "The Byrd Rule". This rule essentially established a procedure whereby members of Congress could object to an "extraneous" element contained in a reconciled budget bill. There are however exceptions to what can be labeled "extraneous" for purposes of a Byrd Rule attack, most notably (if):
  • The provision will (or is likely to) reduce outlays or increase revenues: 1) in one or more fiscal years beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure; 2) on the basis of new regulations, court rulings on pending legislation, or relationships between economic indices and stipulated statutory triggers pertaining to the provision; or 3) but reliable estimates cannot be made due to insufficient data.
I've specifically pointed out this "exception" because it would seem to offer the Democrats a justification for avoiding the Byrd Rule, and forcing health care reform legislation through the reconciliation process; after all, the President has long argued that the purpose of health care reform is to save money. The real question however is not whether Democrats can use budget reconciliation to achieve their domestic agenda, but whether they will. It's safe to say that the political consequences would be enormous, eradicating even the appearance of Republican cooperation for the remainder of President Obama's term in office. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) even said that, if Democrats should choose to pass health care legislation through the reconciliation process: "There'll be a minor revolution in this country"

I'm not exactly sure what Senator Alexander meant by a "minor revolution", but I'm fairly certain that health care via reconciliation would arouse the Republican base in ways not seen since 1994. The election of that year was coined "The Republican Revolution", as the party assumed control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Although these staunch conservatives represent a minority of the country, it's not about how strong your numbers are, but about how many in your ranks vote.

*Great primer on budget reconciliation process and the Byrd Rule Sphere: Related Content

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