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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Elephants With Short Memories

I will beg regular readers to forgive my redundancy on this subject. But so long as Republicans continue to shriek about the possible use of budget reconciliation procedures for health care and/or climate change legislation as though this represented some sort of revolutionary new technique for sneaking legislation through Congress, I will ocassionally issue reminders that reconciliation in its current form was largely the creation of the sainted Ronald Reagan.
You wouldn’t know that from watching an exchange between Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee on Fox late last week, wherein the duo acted like they’d never heard of reconciliation until it was spawned by the devilish socialists of the Obama administration:

HANNITY: [T]he Congress now along with the White House is looking now to use a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation as a means of passing their health-care reform, their tax increases, their extreme cap and trade, their energy policies. Now, that would mean that they pass all of these things without any Republicans even having an opportunity to vote. How dangerous do you think that is?
HUCKABEE: It’s horribly dangerous because it really does bypass the entire system of the American government, where we’re supposed to have an honest debate.

Aside from the fact that the “Republicans can’t vote” assertion is nonsense (at most reconciliation means that Republicans can’t filibuster), Hannity and Huckabee surely know that reconciliation as we know it–as a vehicle for large packages of legislation that don’t simply alter funding levels–was largely invented by Reagan OMB director David Stockman as the means of enacting Ronald Reagan’s entire agenda in 1981.
In the original Congressional Budget Act of 1974, “reconciliation” was an enforcement measure attached to the end of the budget process as a means of forcing rebellious authorizing or appropriations committees to remain within the bounds of the congressional budget resolution. In 1980, however, the procedure was changed allowing “reconciliation instructions” to be included at the front end of the process, to avoid time delays and to anticipate disputes. Only in 1981 did this “front-end reconciliation” become something very different: a fast-track measure to enact very specific changes in in a vast array of federal laws that happened to accomplish budget resolution revenue and spending targets. It was a giant tail wagging the dog of budget levels.
The audacious use of reconciliation by the Reagan administration in 1981 didn’t end there, however. Once the reconciliation bill emerged from the committee system and came to the House floor for a vote, the administration’s congressional allies, unhappy with some of the details, offered a comprehensive floor substitute, labeled Gramm-Latta II, that essentially enacted a couple of years’ worth of legislation in one bill that virtually nobody had read. (The bill as enacted included lunch orders and lobbyists’ phone numbers scribbled by staffers in the margins of the text). And hardly any significant federal program avoided a major re-write of its authorizing langage in ways that reshaped the federal government and its relationship with state and localities, businesses, and individuals in a sweeping array of areas.
While nothing will ever match the breath-taking chutzpah of Gramm-Latta II, short of an actual dictatorship (the so-called Byrd Rule did subsequently place some limits on fast-track enactment of legislation that has little or nothing to do with spending or revenue levels), reconciliation has been regularly used to package and enact major legislation in the ensuing years. Examples included the first Clinton budget package of 1993, the first Gingrich budget package (twice vetoed by Clinton until a final compromise was worked out) in 1995, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and the Bush tax cuts of 2001, among others. All of these bills included major policy changes that were remote from the task of simply laying out a federal budget or changing spending or revenue levels.
It may ultimately turn out that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats will decide to move some parts of the president’s agenda, including health care and/or climate change legislation, outside the reconciliation process, to make changes that might run afoul of the Byrd Rule or to encourage some bipartisan support. But those whose alpha and omega in politics and policy is Ronald Reagan really do need to acknowledge that their hero created this particular tool for majority rule in Congress.

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