Before we learned about retention bonuses for AIG executives, this was supposed to be the week that Congress considered Barack Obama’s proposed $3.6 trillion fiscal-year 2010 budget. An emerging budget issue is whether the already huge bill might also incorporate health care reform and a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions. Obama could add health care reform and cap-and-trade to his overall budget and the entire bill could pass the Senate with a simple majority, via “budget reconciliation.” By requiring only a simple majority, reconciliation makes budget bills filibuster-proof , meaning Obama wouldn’t need the support of Senate Republicans or even centrist Democrats like Indiana’s Evan Bayh or Nebraska’s Ben Nelson.
The articles I’ve read have jumped straight into the politics of it (“Boy, Republicans are going to be mad!” “I thought Obama pledged to be bipartisan!”) but don’t explain how reconciliation works. The think tank Center for Budget Policy and Priorities explains it here: basically the House and Senate agree on an overall budget resolution. But then they provide “reconciliation instructions” to individual Congressional committees to modify the agreed-upon budget bill so it meets certain goals in spending or tax laws. But the reconciliation instructions could, for example, be written to enable the Senate Finance Committee to add health care reform. Such changes to the budget in individual committees would then require a yes-no vote on the Senate floor — i.e., no chance for a filibuster.
Is it appropriate for Obama to push Congress to use reconciliation? Congress created reconciliation in 1974 to deal narrowly with changes in government revenue streams, like a tax increase one year to offset increased spending on Medicare. An unprecedented federal program to limit carbon emissions would not seem in that spirit.
The counter-argument is that every president since Ronald Reagan has used reconciliation one time or another for everything from deficit reduction to renewing a student loan program. Reagan even used it in 1981 to pass his historic tax cuts for the rich, arguably the defining legacy of his presidency.
The real procedural issue here is that the filibuster is broken and has turned into a requirement of 60 Senate votes for any major piece of legislation. The debate should not be about whether it’s better for Senate Republicans to abuse the filibuster or for Obama to abuse budget reconciliation. It should be about whether the U.S. should have the majority of its upper legislative chamber (or 60 percent of it) approve bills. Until then, we’ll get stories like the Washington Post’s “President’s Budget Strategy Under Fire” that reduce the issue to banal political talking points.-MB