Jonathan Cohn has a fascinating article up on the New Republic site about the plans underway in the Senate for early action next year on legislation implementing some version of Barack Obama’s health care proposals. Its main thrust is to reject the beltway conventional wisdom holding that fiscal and political conditions guarantee a go-slow approach on health care for both the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. But nestled in his report is this very important detail:
Of course, drafting a proposal is relatively easy. Passing one–well, that’s another story. But [Senate Finance Committee Chairman] Baucus himself confirms what staffers have been saying for months: Assuming Senate Democrats can find some common ground on reform, they would consider using the budget reconciliation process to enact it.
This is a crucial development. The rules of reconciliation limit debate, restrict amendments, and prohibit filibusters. It’s the one time a simple majority of 50-plus-one votes–rather than the 60 it takes to break a filibuster–can definitively pass legislation. It’s a brass-knuckles way to move legislation and, as such, nobody’s first choice. But, if the Republicans won’t negotiate, Baucus has told me, the Democrats might have to use it.
“Reconciliation” is an arcane but very important congressional budget procedure providing special rules for packaging and voting on legislation necessary to implement congressional budget resolutions. Originally a last-ditch means for forcing rebellious authorizing and appropriations committees to stay within budget, reconciliation was transformed at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency into a vehicle for enacting vast changes in domestic policy on an up-or-down, majority vote. (Indeed, much of Reagan’s domestic agenda was accomplished through a gigantic reconciliation floor substitute in the House–dubbed Gramm-Latta II–that virtually no one had read). It was at the very heart of the Reagan Revolution.
Since Reagan, the use of reconciliation has significantly declined, and has devolved towards its original, stop-gap purpose. But it remains available to a party that controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, and is determined to get big things done quickly.
Republicans will complain, of course, that reconciliation was intended to serve as a way to reduce spending and impose fiscal discipline, not to expand federal benefits for health care or anything else. But the precedent of St. Ronald’s use of reconciliation, which would have shocked the drafters of the Congressional Budget Act, will make such objections seem pretty hypocritical. I’d expect congressional Democrats to emulate their GOP predecessors in another way, by finding a Republican to embrace the “bipartisan” package (for those with short memories, the “Gramm” in “Gramm-Latta,” Phil Gramm of Texas, was at the time a Democrat). But the most important thing is the ability to put together a large and audacious package that can be marketed to the public as what they voted for, and then enacted expeditiously over the objections of the minority party.