Reconciling with the Past

With President Obama and Congressional Democrats intent on one last push for health care reform, the main Republican talking point is outrage over the likely use of the reconciliation process to pass a separate House-Senate compromise. The Republicans' best hopes of killing health reform rest on the use of a filibuster in the Senate. But bills considered under reconciliation cannot be filibustered and therefore can pass the Senate by a simple majority vote.

Bill Frist, a former Senate majority leader, called reconciliation an "arcane" procedure that Congress has "never used . . . to adopt major, substantive policy change." Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee asserted that this parliamentary tactic was unprecedented for a bill like health reform. Senator John McCain of Arizona said that the use of reconciliation would have "cataclysmic effects."

So, would reconciliation represent an anomalous and dangerous power grab? This chart, which lists 15 major reconciliation bills passed by Congress since the process was first used in 1980, provides evidence for assessing that charge.

While the use of reconciliation in this case is new, it is compatible with the law, Senate rules and the framers' intent.

Reconciliation was intended to be a narrow procedure to bring revenues and spending into conformity with the levels set in the annual budget resolution. But it quickly became much more. The 22 reconciliation bills so far passed by Congress (three of which were vetoed by President Bill Clinton) have included all manner of budgetary and policy measures: deficit reductions and increases; social policy bills like welfare reform; major changes in Medicare and Medicaid; large tax cuts; and small adjustments in existing law. Neither party has been shy about using this process to avoid dilatory tactics in the Senate; Republicans have in fact been more willing to do so than Democrats.

The history is clear: While the use of reconciliation in this case--amending a bill that has already passed the Senate via cloture--is new, it is compatible with the law, Senate rules and the framers' intent.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI. Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Raffaela Wakeman is a research assistant at Brookings. Fogelson-Lubliner is a graphic design studio in Brooklyn.

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About the Author

 

Norman J.
Ornstein
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
  • Phone: 202-862-5893
    Email: nornstein@aei.org
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