Health Care Reform and the Great Reconciliation Hoax


We’ve learned two things over the past few weeks, as health care proposals have flitted their way through House and Senate committees.

First, the powers that be — Congressional Dems, not necessarily the president — don’t have a whole lot of good ideas for either cost-cutting or revenue-raising to make this whole thing work.

Second, barring new developments, those not-so-good ideas aren’t going to have an easy time finding votes, filibuster-proof majority be damned.

There are any number of reasons for why this is. Counting moderate Democrats squeamish about government-run health care and the questionable health of Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, the supermajority party could run close to ten votes shy of the 60 needed to squelch a filibuster. Realistically, many of those moderate Dems would probably toe the party line when push came to shove. But Arlen Specter would still be a big question mark, and the Kennedy/Byrd votes are, of course, not a given.

This leaves Democrats with a few options. One is to head back to the drawing board and get those nasty CBO numbers under wraps so as to appeal to moderates. Another is to sign on to one of any number of the bi-partisan alternatives floating around. And another, theoretically, is to utilize the reconciliation rule.

Use of the reconciliation rule, designed to prevent filibusters in routine budget measures, would allow Democrats to pass the legislation with a simple majority because once it’s invoked, the clock begins on a 20-hour-and-no-more debate.

But I’m really not sure why people think it’s a feasible option for a health care bill.

Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight is one of many pundits to mistakenly give reconciliation some pub, fueled perhaps by this article at TheHill.com, which quoted an Obama advisor as saying nothing was off the table.

Silver:

This is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the other scenarios, but Obama could try and use the reconciliation process to pass health care, which would mean Republicans would lose the ability to filibuster in the Senate and Democrats would need only need 50 votes for passage. This is risky: the extent to which the bill remained intact would depend upon the rulings of the obscure Senate Parliamentarian, and going through reconciliation would cause mayhem on the Hill with somewhat unpredictable political consequences. And it would certainly look overtly partisan — especially now that Democrats have gained their 59th and 60th seats in the Senate. But if Obama decides that health care is too big to fail, reconciliation is an option.

Oddly, it’s ailing Sen. Robert Byrd who would also play the foil in this scenario.

The Byrd Rule, which he sponsored in 1996, provides for certain limits on reconciliation, since, shockingly, it was being used for purposes beyond its intent.

Here’s the full text, but the technicality in question stipulates that “a provision shall be considered to be extraneous if it increases, or would increase, net outlays, or if it decreases, or would decrease, revenues during a fiscal year after the fiscal years covered by such reconciliation bill or reconciliation resolution, and such increases or decreases are greater than outlay reductions or revenue increases resulting from other provisions in such title in such year.”

In other words, it would essentially have to pay for itself over a undefined period of time — in this case, apparently six years.

From RollCall, via RealClearPolitics:

Reconciliation rules, (Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad) said, require that a bill be scored as deficit-reducing over six years and that any substantive policy change in it also have a fiscal purpose.

If Democrats came up with a bill pleasing enough to the party elites to invoke reconciliation — meaning, it included a public option — that was also deficit reducing over six years, they wouldn’t need reconciliation in the first place. I’d wager they’d even get a few moderate Republicans jumping ship to vote for a budget-neutral package, even with the public option in place, because constituents want health care reform.

Since that’s not going to happen, the only bills that would qualify under reconciliation are ones so devoid of substance they’d likely draw the ire of liberals and conservatives alike. I suppose it’d be possible to find 50 votes in such a scenario, but what would be the point?

(Ed: My apologies for typos in prior versions. Unbeknownst to me at the time, WordPress is now refusing to make changes to posts when I edit them. Bollocks.)

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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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