Topic A -- The End of Bipartisanship for Obama's Big Initiatives?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Obama administration is considering seeking passage of its health reform and climate change initiatives with a legislative strategy that would require only 51 senators to vote yes, rather than the usual 60 of 100. Sen. Judd Gregg says this would be an assault on bipartisanship equivalent to "throwing us in the Chicago River." But supporters ask: What's wrong with majority rule? Some expert views:


Member of the Senate Budget Committee and senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee

Americans have an inalienable right to a careful examination of proposals that dramatically affect their lives. I was one of the authors of the legislation that created the budget "reconciliation" process in 1974, and I am certain that putting health-care reform and climate change legislation on a freight train through Congress is an outrage that must be resisted.

Using the reconciliation process to enact major legislation prevents an open debate about critical issues in full view of the public. Health reform and climate change are issues that, in one way or another, touch every American family. Their resolution carries serious economic and emotional consequences.

The misuse of the arcane process of reconciliation -- a process intended for deficit reduction -- to enact substantive policy changes is an undemocratic disservice to our people and to the Senate's institutional role. Reconciliation, with its tight time limits, excludes debate and shuts down amendments. Essentially it says "take it or leave it" to the citizens who sent us here to solve problems, and it prevents members from representing their constituents' interests. Everyone likes to win, and the Obama administration, of course, wants victories. But tactics that ignore the means in pursuit of the ends are wrong when the outcome affects Americans' health and economic security. Let us inform the people, get their feedback, allow amendments to be considered and hear opposing views. That's the American way and the right way.


Senior fellow, Brookings Institution; professor of political science at George Washington University

Republicans learned when they last controlled the Senate that reconciliation is worth its weight in gold: It allowed them to prevent Democrats from blocking George W. Bush's tax cuts with a filibuster. While opponents say that the filibuster is sacrosanct and reconciliation a power grab, neither charge is true. There's no reason President Obama shouldn't seek reconciliation protection for his health and energy agendas.

Opponents charge that reconciliation, which protects budget measures from a filibuster, undermines the Senate's commitment to minority rights. Throughout history, however, legendary Senate leaders Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Nelson Aldrich and others struggled to adopt rules that would empower simple majorities. Even Robert Byrd -- the foremost defender of Senate tradition and the father of reconciliation -- sought to rein in filibusters. In recent decades the Senate has written dozens of laws allowing a simple majority to circumvent the chamber's 60-vote rule, crafting "fast-track" rules like reconciliation for trade agreements, war powers, military base closings and more.

Both parties regularly exploit the procedure to advance their agendas. Fast-track rules can lock in hard-fought compromise, taming the unpredictability that would otherwise arise from extended Senate debate. And knowing that only a simple majority is required might encourage the minority to engage the majority early, and more constructively, to ensure its voice is heard.


Former staffer with the Congressional Budget Office and the Senate Budget Committee; vice president of public policy for Cigna Corp.

The authors of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974 envisioned that a "reconciliation" bill would be used to bring an initial budget blueprint adopted in the spring into compliance with a second resolution in the fall, thus reconciliation. While modified and even abused by both Republicans and Democrats over time, the principle has held -- that this procedure should be a limited tool to change spending and revenue.

Ronald Reagan used reconciliation to reduce spending, not cut taxes. His tax cuts followed regular order. Bill Clinton used the process to pass a major deficit-reduction bill his first year, followed later with a bipartisan, balanced budget bill. When thought was given to enacting Clinton's expansive health-care reform through reconciliation, Sen. Robert Byrd, an author of the 1974 act, raised appropriate objections. When George W. Bush considered using reconciliation to enact expanded prescription drug benefits to Medicare recipients, Majority Leader Bill Frist -- on whose staff I worked then -- objected; the legislation was adopted under regular order.

To align our federal books, President Obama can certainly use reconciliation to increase taxes and cut entitlement spending. He can argue that our health-care and energy policies need major changes. But such broad, fundamental policy changes deserve the consideration of the full Congress. Besides the myriad technical problems of combining disparate policy changes into one omnibus bill -- that in the end could be made inoperable with targeted strikes -- this process is not the way to legislate critical issues.


Director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars; former chief of staff of the House Rules Committee

President Obama must make a strategic decision: Is he willing to abandon efforts to achieve consensus on energy and health-care solutions in favor of forced fiscal and policy procedures that would alienate Republicans and many members of his own party? (How many House Democrats can still remember being "BTUed" on President Bill Clinton's energy tax in the 1993 reconciliation bill?) Any time reconciliation has been used, whether by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, it has turned into a nasty and partisan zero-sum game, with no prisoners left behind.

Reconciliation is not suited for major new policy initiatives. Rules in both houses of Congress confine the use of reconciliation to spending and revenue matters that do not increase the deficit or reduce a surplus. Under the Senate's Byrd rule, extraneous provisions that do not produce changes in spending or revenue can be knocked out on points of order, potentially leaving the administration's energy and health-care programs stripped of any policy coherence or programmatic effectiveness. The president would be well advised not to attempt this bridge and, instead, to find common ground along the path of bipartisanship as he promised during the campaign.


Respectively, executive director and director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Congress should try to enact health-care reform this year through its regular legislative process. But as achieving health reform is vital, lawmakers should not, at this point, abandon the option of using reconciliation later in the year to move health legislation if consensus proves elusive and a minority of senators threatens to block its enactment.

Reconciliation is not the unusual or monumental step that critics suggest. Congress has included reconciliation directives in budget resolutions 20 times in the past 34 years and has used the process to help implement key priorities of newly elected presidents of both parties. Congress has also crafted and passed many reconciliation bills in a bipartisan manner, including the 1990 deficit reduction package, the major reform of welfare programs in 1996 and the 2007 changes in the student financial aid system.

Nor has Congress reserved reconciliation solely for measures to reduce deficits. Some of the lawmakers who now oppose reconciliation to enact deficit-neutral health reform used the process themselves in 2001 and 2003 to pass the deficit-swelling Bush tax cuts. Responsible health reform is the key to controlling deficits, which will spin out of control in coming decades unless we rein in rapidly rising health-care costs. If reconciliation proves necessary to enact such reforms, it would represent a sound use of the process.


President of the Urban Institute; former director of the Congressional Budget Office

Reconciliation may appear attractive, given the challenge of rounding up the 60 Senate votes needed to pass significant health-care reform or meaningful climate change legislation, but the risks suggest that seeking just 51 votes -- possibly all Democratic -- is not the path to follow.

First, this approach would spark a partisan battle royal before the administration has fully fleshed out its reform plans or marshaled its troops. Wild claims and counterclaims made when the budget resolution is debated in April could poison the comity needed in September when the real substance is negotiated.

Second, a battle over reconciliation could sink prospects for passing any budget resolution. Congress could be left with no budget blueprint just when some fiscal structure is desperately needed.

Third, reconciliation requirements, which limit the budgetary impacts of the initiatives, could lock in constraints that would prove impossible to achieve. At this stage, lacking even rough legislative proposals to assess, Congress is likely to agree to unrealistic limits. When these can't be met, sensible but slightly more expensive reforms may be doomed. Or budget gimmicks may be called on to save the day.

Last, the Byrd rule strips from reconciled legislation provisions that don't substantially affect outlays or revenue. Significant portions of any health reform or climate legislation could be left on the cutting-room floor. While these outtakes would be considered under normal legislative procedures, if they then failed to surmount the 60-vote hurdle, we'd be left with an unworkable reform.


Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics; author of "A More Perfect Constitution"

Using budget reconciliation, President Obama could get just about everything that matters to him in year one. But short-term gain would yield long-term pain. Grabbing 51 easier Senate votes now could make reaching the critical 60-vote threshold on most everything else much tougher for the rest of his presidency.

Rushing passage of controversial health-care and energy plans will alienate not just Republicans but also a sizable corps of moderate Democrats, especially in the Senate. Given the lack of GOP support for the stimulus plan, it's understandable if Obama loses no sleep over the other party's angst. Yet Republicans Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter, who all supported the stimulus, are owed some consideration. Moreover, Obama will need the dozen-plus centrist Senate Democrats. These moderates oppose the use of reconciliation to achieve major policy changes, and they also see that the optimistic Obama budget projections are unrealistic and guaranteed to add trillions to the $11 trillion national debt.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton never achieved as much as they might have because they demanded too much, too soon of Congress. They didn't listen well to legislators who tried to warn them. Lest his hopes be dashed like his Democratic predecessors, Obama should accept that the entire world does not have to be remade tomorrow -- or even by January 2017.


Member of the House Budget Committee

Power in too few hands corrupts, and as we well know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The regular legislative process works in the best interests of the American people. Reconciliation is the nuclear option. Once used in the short term, its consequences create their own momentum, which are usually not positive for the long term. The Wall Street bailout was driven through Congress on a rail, and look where that has gotten us. America can do better.


Assistant floor parliamentarian from 1987 to 1999; former chief counsel to Sen. Harry Reid; director of Quinn Gillespie and Associates

The Republicans in the Senate are trying to make a moral argument that something as important as health-care reform should not be passed by a simple majority. But given the complete lack of cooperation by the minority in the Senate, it is hard to blame the White House and the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress for wanting to at least authorize this process and hold it in abeyance if health-care reform legislation cannot be passed through the regular order.

While it will be difficult to enact comprehensive health-care reform using the reconciliation process because of the limitations imposed under the budget act, it is possible to make some significant changes to government-run health-care programs and to modify the tax code in a way that could significantly lower costs and make health care more available to millions of Americans. It's also possible, and permissible, to use reconciliation as a tool to generate savings in existing programs as a down payment for subsequent health-care legislation that would be considered through normal Senate procedures.

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