Reconciliation and truth

Thursday, February 25, 2010; A22

LET'S GET a few things straight about reconciliation, the procedure by which Democrats may be able to pass health-care reform by a simple majority. We aren't fans of using the reconciliation process for this purpose. To approve a change as sweeping as this on a party-line vote strikes us as risky for Democrats and, pardon the phrase, unhealthy for the country. But questioning the wisdom of using reconciliation is different from questioning its propriety. Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, using reconciliation in this context would be neither a misuse of Senate rules nor, in a historical context, unusual.

The Republican rap on reconciliation is that it is a "little used" (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) "abuse of the legislative process" (Indiana Rep. Mike Pence) that would be used to "jam this bill through Congress" (Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch). This is hard to take from a crowd that just a few years back was moaning about the preeminent importance of the up-or-down vote. In fact, reconciliation is no more a tricky parliamentary maneuver than the filibuster. Senate rules allow a minority to block legislation by requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster. They also provide a way around the filibuster in certain circumstances involving budgetary matters.

True, the impetus behind reconciliation was to make it easier for lawmakers to make politically difficult decisions -- in particular, raising taxes or cutting spending to reduce the deficit. The rules still require a tight connection to budgetary issues, which is why Senate Democrats avoided the procedure to begin with. But reconciliation has been used numerous times to enact substantive changes, including major reforms, such as the overhaul of welfare. Republicans tried, unsuccessfully, to use reconciliation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Most recent health-care legislation also has been approved through reconciliation: the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the ability to buy into employer-sponsored health insurance after leaving a job, federal standards for nursing home care, changes to Medicare-payment policies for hospitals and expansion of Medicaid eligibility.

And the biggest abuse of reconciliation rules was engineered by Republicans, when they obtained a parliamentary ruling that reconciliation could be used not only for tax increases, but for tax cuts as well. Those who complain about twisting the rules now weren't bothered then.

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