Budget Reconciliation As 'Act Of Violence'?

"Reconciliation." It has such a nice, hopeful ring to it.

But anyone who has attempted it can probably testify to its inherent difficulty — and that includes members of Congress. Because depending on who is in power on Capitol Hill, reconciliation is either a boon or a travesty.

Reconciliation is a powerful, 25-year-old procedural maneuver that allows for the passage of a budget by a simple majority vote rather than the usual 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.

As it's playing out now in Congress, "reconciliation" is — take your pick — an indispensable tool for majority Democrats to protect parts of their budget from a filibuster by Senate Republicans; or, in the words of a currently out-of-power GOP Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, an "act of violence."

It is, however, an uncommonly common procedure. Most recently, then-President George W. Bush used it to push through his controversial tax cuts. And it would now allow majority Senate Democrats to limit debate on an omnibus budget measure to a maximum of 20 hours and guarantee passage without Republican votes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pushing Senate colleagues to follow her lead and endorse the reconciliation procedure to fast-track their budget proposal, particularly funding for President Obama's overhaul of health care policy.

Republicans have called foul, and leading Senate Democrats — including the chairmen of the budget and appropriations committees — have expressed reluctance to use the tactic, which critics see as a heavy-handed way to silence the minority.

Senate budget leaders did not include the provision in the budget resolution that will be debated on the Senate floor next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, however, is not ruling out using reconciliation to advance at least one major aspect of the budget proposal: the part pertaining to Obama's health care initiative.

Use of the procedure has grown in proportion to partisanship on Capitol Hill. And it will, no doubt, be part of the debate when representatives of the Senate and the House get together to unify their budget bills in coming weeks.

Pelosi and the administration continue to push hard for the maneuver as a fallback if Senate Republicans unite in an effort to filibuster against Obama's key health care initiatives.

A Maneuver With Bipartisan Roots

Is all this maneuvering really what was intended when Congress adopted reconciliation as part of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974?

No, says Allen Schick of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.

At the time, Congress, unlike now, had a two-part budget process: an early resolution that set a spending target, and a later measure to impose a firm spending limit. In between the two, Schick says, Congress might take action that would put spending above or below the ceiling.

Reconciliation was envisioned as a simple process to clean up that discrepancy at the end of the budget process — that's why the window of debate is so brief, he says.

The procedure was initially seen as an effort to give Congress more control over the nation's spending plan after its seven-year budget war with President Nixon, says Anita Krishnakumar, a St. John's University professor who has written extensively about reconciliation. And it later became a tool to reduce deficits.

A subsequent amendment named after Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia allowed senators to strip out budget provisions that don't have "direct fiscal implications."

A Heavy-Handed Tool

Though intended to enhance Congress's power over spending and revenue, reconciliation has in recent years been employed more often to advance the agenda of a president who enjoys majorities in Congress.

That has fed, Krishnakumar says, a divisiveness that began to bloom during the Clinton years, when it was used to push through a 1993 spending plan that not one Republican voted for, and flowered during the tax cuts of the recent Bush administration.

The use of reconciliation to weaken the power of the Senate minority has continued to infect budget deliberations since, with majority parties routinely extracting payback by locking out minority representatives from deliberations and limiting floor debate and the ability of the minority party to amend legislation.

That may help majority parties pass their initiatives, Krishnakumar says, but it also calls into question their legitimacy, particularly when they involve a sweeping overhaul of policy.

Fostering Divisiveness

"There are real consequences to this kind of divisiveness," she says. "It infects the rest of the legislative process and the budget process for coming years."

"And it raises questions about how thought-out the legislation is — with little opportunity for amendments or debate," she said.

That's the argument Republicans are making, for now, anyway.

"We used reconciliation to give people their money back," says Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We didn't use it to create a massive policy change."

Schick views what's happening on Capitol Hill as just the latest iteration of reconciliation. And there are likely to be many more.

"We can't put the genie back in the bottle," says Krishnakumar. "And I'm not sure we want that."

"But how can we tweak the procedure so it doesn't lead to this kind of divisiveness?" she asked. In spite of the president's early calls for bipartisanship, an answer is unlikely to come anytime soon.

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