Through the use of budget reconciliation, Senate Republicans are destroying traditional Senate standards, and it will come back to bite them.
Many of us grew up with an “I’m Just a Bill” sense of how legislation in Congress gets passed. In the “Schoolhouse Rock” world, a lawmaker who is inspired to fix a problem in his or her community drafts a bill that scales the steps of the Capitol and undergoes vigorous debate and improvement in committee before members of Congress from across the political spectrum come together for a floor vote. The bill then goes to the other chamber of Congress where it undergoes a similar process before a well-thought-out and refined bill lands on the president’s desk.
Sadly, such a visionary sequence of events rarely ever happens. Partisanship in the Congress has been on the rise for years, and party leaders often have tendencies to take advantage of arcane parliamentary procedures to pass their agendas and negate the efforts of the opposing party. Indeed, with a caucus of just 52 in the Senate, Republicans are currently still eight seats away from a supermajority, which would be needed to pass most conservative legislation, including potential once-in-a-generation reforms such as health care and taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), employed an obscure strategy known as budget reconciliation during the ill-fated health care fight to avoid a Democratic filibuster. In doing so, he disarmed one of the minority party’s defensive weapons by limiting the Democrats’ ability to stall the bill with debate and non-germane amendments. It is likely that McConnell will attempt to use reconciliation again as the Senate moves towards tax reform. However, forgoing “regular order” and a slow, measured, bipartisan process will only serve to weaken the resulting bill and increase partisanship.
Budget reconciliation is a process created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 that allows accelerated consideration of certain legislation on spending, revenues and the federal debt limit. The process lowers the required vote threshold to a simple 51-vote majority in the Senate, rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes. While it was originally conceived by lawmakers as a way to bring down the federal budget deficit by easing the path for budget and tax deals, it has been used more recently to pass a range of social reform bills when 60 “aye” votes were difficult to obtain. For example, it was used to enact major spending cuts during President Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, welfare reform in 1996, three major Bush-era tax cuts, and a companion bill to the Affordable Care Act, which made some revisions to it. However, reconciliation was not originally meant to serve this purpose. Thus, while Mr. McConnell’s choice to use budget reconciliation is by no means unprecedented, it is not the proper way for the Senate to proceed on social reform legislation that will inevitably impact huge swaths of the electorate.
Because Mr. McConnell initially only sought a simple majority, which could be achieved by the Republican caucus alone, and the drafting process took place behind closed doors, he occluded the possibility of bipartisan cooperation. Ideally, a bipartisan outcome should always be pursued first and a partisan outcome should be resorted to only if that fails. McConnell flipped that logic on its head: a partisan, far-right bill was his preferred result and the possibility of cooperation across the aisle was a fallback. The Republican-only process divided the intellectual capital behind the bill by half, which diminished the likelihood of writing a bill solid enough to secure the necessary threshold of votes from the outset, and that’s a serious shame. More brainpower gives way to better and more creative solutions and prevents “group-think.”
Moreover, Mr. McConnell’s argument that Democrats are unwilling to work with them is a myth. As long as Republicans insist on centering their health care reforms on tax cuts for the wealthy financed by cuts to Medicaid spending for the poor – both proposals that are deeply unpopular among voters—then no, they won’t find Democratic support. But the default to a partisan reconciliation process eliminated the possibility of pursuing reforms that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, such as stabilizing the insurance market and lowering deductibles. By using reconciliation to seek extreme right-wing reforms without the threat of filibuster, Republicans missed out on the chance to achieve some much more moderate goals.
The good news is that a handful of Republican senators have shown more leadership than their majority leader and have taken initiative in framing health care reform proposals with Democratic colleagues. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, has been a pathfinder in this process. Senator Alexander and Senator Patricia Murray (D-WA), and the ranking Democrat on the HELP Committee have agreed to hold bipartisan hearings to shore up marketplaces once the Senate reconvenes.
The theatrics of the budget reconciliation process and the nail-biting votes of late make for good politics, but they don’t produce good policy. While Republicans may see “regular order” as an annoying roadblock, it’s critical to preventing tyranny of the majority. And one day not long from now, when we vote Republicans out of their Senate majority, they will regret the precedent they are currently setting.