Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reconciliation Follies

Republicans are doing everything they can to convince the media and the public that using the budget reconciliation process to finish health care would be a grave crime against democracy.

But reconciliation is part of the Senate rules. And there's perhaps no better person to make that point than Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH)--the Senate Republicans' top budget guy--who vociferously defended the use of reconciliation when his party tried to use it in 2005 to allow drilling in Alaska.

"The representation by the Senator from Massachusetts that somehow that this is outside the rules--to proceed within the rules--is a very unique view of the rules," Gregg said on the Senate floor back when he was part of the majority. "We are using the rules of the Senate here, that's what they are senator. Reconciliation is a rule of the Senate set up under the Budget Act. It has been used before for purposes exactly like this on numerous occasions."

Gregg went on, "Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so."

Unsurprisingly, Gregg feels differently about things these days. Last year he compared the majority-rules vote to "running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

Republicans have also advanced the meme that reconciliation amounts to the "nuclear option"--a term that came to fame when Republicans tried to change the Senate rules regarding the minority's right to obstruct judicial nominations. But the "nuclear option" was a threat to change the rules. As Gregg pointed out very publicly, reconciliation is already part of the rules.

A rather conventional report in the New York Times, which ignores the most relevant detail:

White House officials and their allies in liberal advocacy groups are making an all-out push to persuade Congress and the public that budget reconciliation is a legitimate procedure used often in the last 30 years to pass major legislation, including President Ronald Reagan's domestic agenda in 1981, an overhaul of welfare programs in 1996 and President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he knew those precedents. But, he said, they amount to "peanuts compared with this total restructuring of one-sixth of the economy."

The whole discussion seems badly off-track. Democrats and other proponents of health care reform have invested so much energy in questioning the merit of the GOP argument -- pointing to all the other times reconciliation has been used, for example -- that they forget to question the premise.

Whether Grassley and his cohorts realize it or not, let's emphasize what the NYT did not mention: reconciliation would not be used to pass health care reform in the Senate. The Senate has already approved health care reform, with 60 votes, through an entirely conventional process. The next time the Senate votes on a reform-related measure, it's very likely to a small budget fix -- not the huge legislative package -- after reform is already finished.

The Democratic arguments in response to Republican complaints are plentiful and accurate, but ultimately irrelevant. The GOP is arguing that it would be outrageous to pass health care reform through reconciliation, but no one is recommending passing health care reform through reconciliation. The other talking points don't much matter when the premise of the Republican argument is proven to be inexorably flawed.

Reader Ron Byers noted that MSNBC's Chuck Todd and Chris Matthews, to their credit, emphasized this point on "Hardball" on Thursday, and I tracked down the video. It's a clip the DNC, the White House, and congressional Dems would be wise to keep in mind.

E.J. Dionne called Todd's observation "superb," adding, "I do not expect what I will call the Todd Clarification to stop Republicans from condemning the Democrats if they get a bill through with the reconciliation amendments. But shouldn't all of us be referring to them just that way -- as 'amendments' rather than as 'a bill'? ... Kudos to Todd for stating a truth that just about all of us have missed."

The next time you hear a Republican (or a reporter) argue that it would be wrong to pass health care reform through reconciliation, remember one critically important detail that's gone overlooked for weeks: the argument doesn't make sense.

Democrats court Godot vote on health reform
Feb. 26: Ezra Klein, staff writer for The Washington Post, talks with Rachel Maddow about why the Democrats, having by now figured out that opponents of health reform are unwilling to compromise, aren't acting immediately to pass a bill.

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If policymakers are still open to advice from experts not on Capitol Hill, this should be taken seriously.

Obviously, not all economists are in favor of the current proposals in Congress. But a pretty impressive list of health economists and other policy experts has released a letter making the following argument:

"We commend the President's pursuit of bipartisan solutions. Yet the summit made plain that it is now time to move decisively and quickly to enact comprehensive reform. We believe that the only workable process at this point is to use the President's proposal to finish the job. After long debate, the House and Senate have passed two similar bills that do crucial things to improve U.S. health care."

Harold Pollack and Timothy Jost pulled together responses from 80 nationally prominent experts, which included some pretty heavy hitters: "Jacob Hacker, Paul Starr, Theda Skocpol, Ted Marmor, Len Nichols, Jon Gruber, David Cutler, Henry Aaron, and many other luminaries from the social sciences, medicine, and public health. People on this list disagree about many things ranging from single-payer to the public option and the taxation of health insurance. We agree about one thing: It is time to finally pass this bill by majority vote in both houses."

The letter and list of scholars who signed on is available in full here.

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