Reconciliation Politics

by Brien Jackson

Ezra Klein has the goods on Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad’s (D-ND) feelings on using the reconciliation process for healthcare reform:

Asked by a reporter whether Senate Democrats would just adopt reconciliation instructions from House Democrats — more on that strategy here — he replied first with the standard caveats. “I don’t want to do the negotiation of the Conference Committee through the media,” he said. “I’ve been as clear as I can be, publicly and privately, that I don’t think reconciliation is the right way to write health reform legislation. It wasn’t designed for that purpose. It was designed for deficit reduction. Using it creates a lot of technical issues.”[…]

“One thing I’ve said to colleagues is the Budget Act contemplates a second budget resolution with only 10 hours [of debate] on the floor,” Conrad continued. “If it proved absolutely essential, if there was no Republican cooperation on writing major health reform, you could write a second resolution. It would only take a day on the floor and you could include reconciliation instructions there.”

That’s rare moment of insight into the backroom strategy sessions Conrad is conducting with his Democratic colleagues. Not only are they discussing reconciliation, but Conrad is developing a variety of parliamentary plays that could reintroduce it into the process. There’s not only the option of importing reconciliation instructions from House Democrats, but also adopting a second budget that allows Senate Democrats to write the rules themselves. Moreover, Conrad’s comments echo the Democratic Caucus’s consensus fairly perfectly: He doesn’t want to use reconciliation, but if Republicans won’t cooperate on health reform, he’ll be left with no choice.

There’s a lot of very important aspects of this to unpack, but on a number of levels, Conrad’s answer is quite encouraging. First of all, Conrad is exactly right that you wouldn’t, ideally, want to use reconciliation to pass healthcare reform. Not because it’s impolite or violates the sanctity of the Senate or some other such nonsense, but because measures passed through reconciliation acquire a certain set of particular caveats from the process, notably a 10 year sunset. That is to say, if you passed healthcare reform through reconciliation, among several less than ideal factors the program would end after 10 years unless it was independently made permanent. That’s not the worst thing in the world, because programs like this are hard to unwind once they’re in place (Medicare has survived 4 Republican Presdients after all), but at the same time, the sunset provisions wouldn’t require overt action to kill te program, only inaction, and that could potentially put pressure on Democrats to accept a bad deal down the road to preserve it, especially if Republicans control one of the houses of Congress at the time. So reconciliation should certainly not be your starting point for any efforts regarding healthcare.

That said, making it known that you are willing to use the process as a last resort is crucial to getting moderate Republicans, and moderate Democrats for that matter, to play along. Without it, all of the leverage goes to individual members at the margins whose vote is needed to invoke cloture. With it, the pressure is on the individual to get a deal done, and the advantage goes to the collective bloc (provided you have at least 50 Senators on board), who can demand favorable terms for any deal, since they’re holding the “trigger” in this scenario. Of course, it doesn’t help matters when you’ve made a big to-do about earmarks, and you have to find some way to cut a deal that doesn’t involve a nice sum of money for a worthwhile project in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, or Maine.