"But Republicans Used Reconciliation Too!"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 13, 2010

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The chief excuse used to justify the Democrats pending use of reconciliation to pass a supplemental health care bill–once the Senate’s version is presumably passed by the House–is that since Republicans used reconciliation in the past, Democrats can use it too. And specifically, since Republicans used reconciliation for things like “tax cuts for the rich!”, Democrats can use it to pass health care.

James Joyner points out that Democrats shouldn’t be allowed to get away with making this argument:

Almost every act passed under reconciliation (8/15) has in fact been a budget bill. And most of those that weren’t (5/7) were tax bills. The two outliers: The 1996 welfare reform act and the 2007 student aid package. Why those were passed under reconciliation isn’t made clear.

What’s also interesting is that the vast majority of these bills were absolute slam dunks. Most (8/15) were passed by filibuster-proof supermajorities, meaning that reconciliation wasn’t used as an end-around to avoid a cloture vote.

The argument that Republicans were more likely to use the process than Democrats is meaningless, simply reflecting the fact that Republicans have dominated the Senate over the period in question. Reconciliation was used six times during the Reagan administration but only once on a bill that didn’t have supermajority support. The Republicans controlled the Senate for all but the last of those votes. The Democrats then used it for two borderline votes. The Republicans used it for two slam dunks, one vote that didn’t quite have a filibuster-proof margin, and one 51-50 vote in which VP Cheney had to break the tie.

The bottom line is that using reconciliation as an end-around to avoid filibusters is exceedingly rare, having happened at most 7 times since 1980. Of those 7 cases, all were budget or tax measures. So, using reconciliation to avoid a supermajority on health care reform would simply be unprecedented.

(Via Megan McArdle.) Given this history, it should come as no surprise that there are objections to using reconciliation in order to pass a health care bill. And of course, no one actually believes that reconciliation would be used if Democrats had a 60-vote majority on the issue in the Senate. Reconciliation was specifically created in order to allow Congress to reconcile spending, revenue, and/or the debt limit with the governing budget resolution. While reconciliation allows the Senate to pass a bill without having to go through a filibuster, it was not created specifically for the purpose of avoiding filibusters. And yet, the Democrats plan to use reconciliation for precisely this purpose. Far from being employed as a budgetary policy best practice, reconciliation is now going to be employed as a “get out of the Senate free” card.

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