Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reconciliation Standup Comedy

QOTD, Chait:

Look, it would be okay for reporters and pundits to be obsessed with what legislative method is employed to pass health care reform if they boned up on the issue. Alternatively, it would be okay for them not to understand it at all if they deemed it an irrelevant issue. (Which, in my opinion, it is.) But obsessed and ignorant makes for a bad combination.

I've been getting some e-mail lately about Warren Buffett apparently attacking health-care reform. Turns out he didn't, but that Fox News is saying he did. The relevant quote comes from an interview Buffett gave to CNBC on Monday. "If it was a choice today between plan A, which is what we've got, or plan B, the Senate bill, I would vote for the Senate bill. But I would much rather see a plan C that really attacks costs."

So would I, and so would the Obama administration. No one is saying the Senate bill is perfect. But they're saying it's far preferable to the status quo. Fox News, meanwhile, is saying that Buffett said "he simply cannot go along with this particular health care bill." In fact, he said the exact opposite. I continue to be amazed that lying brazenly to your audience is such a good business strategy.

Orrin Hatch (R-UT) argues against an up-or-down vote on health care reform and invents his own Constitution to make his case:

This is attractive to proponents because it sharply limits debate and amendments to a mere 20 hours and would allow passage with only 51 votes (as opposed to the 60 needed to overcome a procedural hurdle). But the Constitution intends the opposite process, especially for a bill that would affect one-sixth of the American economy.

And not only would an up-or-down vote fly in the face of the Hatch Constitution, it could:

... damage the prospects of bipartisanship.



Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, and made some comments news outlets took very seriously. The lead story on Mark Halperin's "The Page" yesterday, for example, told readers, "Conrad: Reconciliation Can't Do Comprehensive; Budget gatekeeper says Sunday full health care package by 51 just 'won't work.'"

This Politico report was even more dramatic.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) threw cold water on the idea of using the reconciliation process Sunday during an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"Reconciliation cannot be used to pass comprehensive health care reform," said Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "The major package would not be done through reconciliation."

Asked by CBS host Bob Schieffer to elaborate, given that the White House suggested earlier Sunday that they could pass the main bill with a simple majority of 51 votes, Conrad said that reconciliation was not, in fact, an option.

Reporters found Conrad's comments provocative and newsworthy for only one reason: the media is taking Republican talking points seriously, and doesn't realize the GOP rhetoric is nonsense.

If Dems were trying to pass a comprehensive health care reform package through the Senate using reconciliation rules -- the way Republicans keep insisting -- Conrad's on-air remarks might be important. But that's not reality. Democrats already passed a comprehensive health care reform package through the Senate using the regular ol' legislative process. The talk, at this point, is about using reconciliation for a budget fix, which incidentally, is why reconciliation exists. It's really not that complicated.

The news outlets that jumped on Conrad's observation didn't realize just how ordinary his remarks really were.

Jon Chait posted the transcript, which makes it clear Conrad is actually on board with exactly what Democrats intend to do: House passes Senate bill, Senate approves modest, budget-related amendments through reconciliation. This wasn't the senator throwing "cold water" on the Dems' plan; this was Conrad endorsing the Dems' plan.

Chait concluded, "Look, it would be okay for reporters and pundits to be obsessed with what legislative method is employed to pass health care reform if they boned up on the issue. Alternatively, it would be okay for them not to understand it at all if they deemed it an irrelevant issue. (Which, in my opinion, it is.) But obsessed and ignorant makes for a bad combination."

Sargent: Kent Conrad Rips Media: Yes, We Can Do Reform Via Reconciliation

In an interview with me just now, Senator Kent Conrad tore into the media for repeatedly botching its reporting on reconciliation, and confirmed that in his view, the current plan being entertained by Obama and Dems to pass reform via that tactic can, in fact, be made to work.

Conrad, the budget committee chair, also offered his most detailed explanation yet for why the House must pass the Senate bill first, before the Senate passes its reconciliation fix.

Conrad caused a big stir yesterday by saying: “Reconciliation cannot be used to pass comprehensive health care reform.” This was widely interpreted as claiming that the Dem way forward is a non-starter.

But Conrad patiently explained that the media interpretation of his comments is wrong. He was merely saying reconciliation would not be used to pass a comprehensive bill, and would only be used to pass the sidecar fix, which he said is workable, depending on what’s in it.

“Reporters don’t seem to be able to get this straight,” Conrad said, hitting the “misreporting” he said is widespread. “Comprehensive health care reform will not work through reconciliation. But if the House passes the Senate bill, and wants certain things improved on, like affordability, the Medicaid provisions, how much of Medicaid expenses are paid for by the Federal government, that is something that could be done through reconciliation.”

“A sidecar would be a good candidate for reconciliation depending on what’s in it,” Conrad said, adding that he didn’t think fixes to abortion or immigration provions would likely work, something that could create obstacles to passing the Senate bill in the House.

Conrad also explained in new detail why he believes that the House must pass the Senate bill first, a view that has been denounced by some critics who want the Senate to pass its fix before the House acts.

Conrad said that under Congressional rules, for a reconciliation fix to be “scored,” it’s not necessary that it become law, but it is necessary for it to have passed both houses of Congress before getting fixed. “For the scoring to change it has to have passed Congress, and that means both houses,” he said.

“The only thing that works here is the House has to pass the Senate bill,” Conrad continued. “Then the House can initiate a reconciliation measure that would deal with a limited number of issues that score for budget purposes.” After that, the Senate would pass the same reconciliation fix, Conrad explained, because even on the fix itself the House must go first because the lower chamber must initiate “revenue bills.”

Got that? It does look like this is how it’s all going to go down.


Update: John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel emails a response:

“The American people have already rejected Washington Democrats’ trillion-dollar government takeover of health care stuffed with tax hikes, Medicare cuts, and special-interest giveaways. They have been crystal clear and loud as a buzzsaw on this issue. Trying to jam their latest job-killing backroom deal through Congress using this procedural trick would be a serious mistake.”

Republicans go 'nuclear' with health reform distortions
March 1: DNC chair Tim Kaine talks with Rachel Maddow about the lengths to which Republicans will go in their opposition to reforming health care in America, including a disinformation campaign on the American public to conflate the reconciliation process with "the nuclear option."

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Think Progress: Lamar Alexander Won’t Rule Out Using Reconciliation To Repeal Health Care Reform

Yesterday on ABC’s This Week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) attacked Democrats for considering using reconciliation to pass health care reform, saying it would be “the end of the Senate.” Yet Alexander himself has voted for bills using reconciliation at least four times in his Senate career.

Today on Fox News, Alexander said that if Democrats pass health care, he will lead the GOP charge to repeal it. “We’ll spend the rest of the year in the campaign to try to repeal it,” he said, adding that “the health care bill is going to define every Democratic candidate for every public office in November.”

Later on ABC’s Top Line, Alexander again attacked reconciliation and reiterated his repeal pledge, but the Tennessee senator wouldn’t rule out using reconciliation to repeal health care reform:

Q: If the Democrats succeed in jamming this through on reconciliation, would you be open to using the very same process – reconciliation – to repeal health care reform?

ALEXANDER: I don’t like using the reconciliation for this. I’ve tried to be consistent in my views. […]

Q: Is reconciliation something you would say, “We would never use for something substantive legislation like health care?” Are you prepared to make that kind of statement?

ALEXANDER: No I’m not going to prepare to make any kind of statement. I’m prepared to say it shouldn’t be done now and if it shouldn’t be done now it shouldn’t be done in the future.

Watch it (starting at 4:40):

It doesn’t make sense that using reconciliation to pass health care reform would be “the end of the Senate,” yet using the process to repeal it would be perfectly acceptable.

“The goal of the repeal movement is to intimidate Democrats into inaction and raise money,” notes the Wonk Room’s Igor Volsky, adding that “they’ll be attacked for voting for an unpopular bill and portrayed as weak for abandoning an effort they fervently championed. Then again, if Democrats are willing to take their campaign advice from Republicans, maybe they shouldn’t be in Congress in the first place.”

Khimm (MoJo): McCain's Reconciliation Flip-Flop

This Sunday on "Meet the Press," Sen. John McCain announced that he plans to introduce an amendment that would prohibit the Democrats from using reconciliation to make changes to Medicare. Entitlement programs "should not be part of a reconciliation process," he declared to David Gregory, referring to the filibuster-proof procedure that requires only 51 votes. "It’s too important."

But just five years ago McCain himself voted to use reconciliation to make spending cuts to an entitlement program—in this case, Medicaid. McCain, along with 30 other current Republican senators, used a simple majority to pass George W. Bush's 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, which, among other things, "reduced Medicaid spending and allowed parents of disabled children to buy into Medicaid," as Greg Sargent notes. (Sargent's list of all the Republicans who have voted for reconciliation over the past 20 years is worth a look.)

McCain's hypocrisy blows a hole in the Republicans' contention that if Democrats use reconciliation to pass health care reform, they'll "end the Senate" as we know it. While the GOP has accused Democrats of "ramming" and "jamming" reform through the Senate, the bill in question already passed the Senate back in December. If that measure manages to clear the House, the Senate will only be passing limited tweaks to its bill via a so-called reconciliation sidecar—not pushing through a massive overhaul of the entire legislation. And although some of those fixes may apply to Medicare and Medicaid, they fall squarely within accepted reconciliation procedure, which is used for legislative tweaks that directly affect the federal budget.

Of course, Republicans themselves have long pushed for much deeper spending cuts to entitlement programs, only to turn around and accuse the Democrats of slashing benefits for vulnerable Americans. All of which makes it clear that McCain's latest flip-flop is just a political maneuver intended to derail reform, not some principled defense of the democratic process.

I realize Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is a sitting U.S. senator, but I'm hard pressed to imagine why the Washington Post agreed to publish such intellectually dishonest nonsense.

To impose the will of some Democrats and to circumvent bipartisan opposition, President Obama seems to be encouraging Congress to use the "reconciliation" process, an arcane budget procedure, to ram through the Senate a multitrillion-dollar health-care bill that raises taxes, increases costs and cuts Medicare to fund a new entitlement we can't afford.... [T]he Constitution intends the opposite process, especially for a bill that would affect one-sixth of the American economy.

Mustang Bobby noted in response, "Orrin Hatch thinks you're stupid," which seems to summarize things nicely.

Hatch has been around long enough (he joined the Senate 33 years ago) to know that his claims aren't true. He says reconciliation is "arcane," but it's not. Hatch argues President Obama wants to use majority-rule to pass the health care reform package, but he doesn't. Hatch says the Constitution discourages the Senate from approving legislation by majority rule, but it doesn't.

We're not talking about gray areas, or debates that are open to interpretation -- Hatch is simply and unambiguously wrong. And the Post published his demonstrably false arguments anyway.

This was especially rich:

[W]hen President George W. Bush and Congress created the prescription drug benefit in 2003, we Republicans in the Senate decided against using reconciliation because it would have made the plan partisan and condemned this important legislation to failure. Instead, the bill garnered significant bipartisan support -- demonstrating why reconciliation was not even attempted. That precedent should carry the day here.

What Hatch conveniently forgets is that reconciliation wasn't used when Republicans expanded Medicare (without paying for it) because Democrats didn't filibuster the final bill. The GOP didn't skip majority rule because of the goodness of their hearts; the Republican majority skipped it because they didn't need it. "That precedent should carry the day here"? Why, that's a great idea. As soon as partisan hacks like Hatch let the Senate vote up or down on major pieces of legislation, the way Senate Democrats did in 2003 and the way the chamber operated for the better part of 200 years, that precedent will be honored.

The whole pitch is absurd to the point of being insulting. Hatch has repeatedly supported up-or-down votes on legislation large and small. Indeed, he thought it was a great idea for delivering massive tax breaks for the rich -- packages that cost far more than health care reform now -- but whines incessantly when Dems consider the same procedure to pass a modest fix related to health care.

Hatch really ought to be embarrassed. His op-ed strays so far from reality, it reflects the perspective of someone who is either brazenly dishonest or shockingly confused about the basics of current events. Either way, this is a sad joke.

Update: I should also note that Hatch treats Senate procedures in his op-ed as somehow sacrosanct. But it doesn't take long to look into Hatch's background and realize he abandons institutional procedures and traditions whenever it suits his purposes. It's what dishonest hacks always do.

Second Update: Sargent takes a closer look at Hatch's history with reconciliation: In composing this treatise, Hatch naturally faced a problem: "How to address the numerous times he voted for reconciliation measures himself? His solution: He simply omitted all mention of his numerous votes for reconciliation measures that passed by a simple majority."

  • from the comments:

    This is tribal politics pure and simple. What is really shocking is to watch how much the various news outlets have also been coopted by tribal politics. I really had hoped that they had Fox News and we had everyone else. With the exception of the NYT and McClatchy, all of the major news outlets -- AP, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, the Washington Post, even NPR etc, -- have been coopted by or capitulated to the Republican Party. I don't find the corporatist rhetoric from secular animist, ron beyers, or neill necessarily convincing, but I am left scratching my head at why the coverage is so lop-sided. They are delivering a strong headwind to the Republican resurgence, and it has nothing to do with wanting a horse race. Once in office, they always give the Republicans a free pass to do whatever they want. Again, we might not be a center-right Country, but our news media sure is. The question is why? And yes, I am sure it is complicated.

    Posted by: Scott F. on March 2, 2010 at 11:18 AM
Atrios: Wankery
Greg directs his ire at Orrin Hatch, but the real problem is Fred Hiatt, whose vision of the modern newspaper editorial page, and the modern editorial page editor, involves letting the "right" people say anything they want even if it contradicts the paper's own reporting.

I think we're long past the time when most print newspapers could've been saved by simply providing a better product, but I also think there was a window to save, if not the print versions, the institutions which published them. Obviously the WaPo can survive as long as Kaplan Test Prep makes enough to keep them afloat, but I do wish more journalists bemoaning the losses in their industry would recognize that at least to some degree ceasing to be relevant and authoritative publications is a part of the problem. Why should people read them when they have to spend a lot of time figuring out when they're being bullshitted?

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