The budget resolution that the Senate is taking up this week contains a special section known as a reconciliation resolution. This consists of instructions to eight separate authorizing committees to report substantial changes in existing tax and spending laws to reduce the deficit. When the committees report--which they must do within one month-- the changes are wrapped up in a single package and brought to the floor by the Budget Committee under a special set of procedures.
I have been a strong supporter of the reconciliation process. In fact, the first reconciliation we carried out on the first budget resolution was done pursuant to my motion in the Senate Budget Committee back in 1980. I also included reconciliation in my opening motion this year for the committee to make major reductions in the deficit, because I think reconciliation is the only way we can actually pass the legislative changes necessary to achieve those reductions.
This is the same method we have used to cut spending and raise revenues for the last two years. The idea of reconciliation is that it offsets the normal pressures that arise against singling out any program for cuts. Bringing all the cuts into a single package lets Congress show that the burden of restraint is shared fairly, and the total savings become substantial enough to make a significant reduction in the deficit.
Fairness is the key word in the process. Since each committee does its work separately, no one can tell whether the package is fair until it comes together. At that point, however, the Budget Committee is prohibited by law from changing what the authorizing committees send it. I believe that is a wise protection.
Unfortunately, the Budget Act also contains a "germaneness" provision, which has the unintended effect of preventing the full Senate from altering the work of its committees. The intent of the "germaneness" restriction was to prevent extraneous non-budgetary amendments from being added to budget resolutions.
But when applied to the reconciliation bill, which makes the actual changes in the permanent law, the germaneness restriction prohibits members from offering any alternative spending cut or tax change that was not included by the authorizing committees. Even if the package looks unfair, it cannot be corrected.
Such amendments would normally be allowed if the same legislation were considered outside the reconciliation process. The rules used to achieve budgetary restraint are therefore imposing an unusual and unnecessary constraint on the normal legislative process. We should adopt a limited modification of this rule to allow an open democratic process.
There are several other problems with the use of germaneness in this way. Suppose the authorizing committee, by a one-vote margin, decided to cut program "A" but not program "B." When the bill was on the floor, reconciliation would prohibit any member from offering an amendment to substitute a cut in program B. A narrow majority of members in one committee would therefore dictate its will to the Senate.
For example, if a majority of members on the Finance Committee came from one region with a particular interest in a certain tax loophole, the committee would be unlikely to close it as part of its revenue-raising package. When the bill came to the floor, a majority of members would be prevented from offering an amendment to close that loophole.
While I recognize the desire of committee chairmen to set the legislative agenda by keeping off items they have not considered in committee, I think they already have the upper hand. When a new or unfamiliar issue is raised on the floor, and the committee chairman says the committee has not had an opportunity to consider it, most members defer to his expertise and vote to table. That advantage remains even if we allow floor amendments.
A second problem is that germaneness works against reducing the deficit when action is taken on reconciliation bills. Let us suppose it is clear that a majority of the Senate is prepared to reject a particular cut. It would not be in order for the committee to come up with a new offsetting cut to restore the original cost savings.
Finally, germaneness invites committees to play the "Washington Monument Game." If they do not really want to reduce their programs, they can report something clearly intolerable, such as grounding the entire Air Force for a year or eliminating feeding programs for the elderly. A motion to strike those cuts would be in order, and would obviously pass, thereby increasing the deficit. However, it would not be permissible to offer an amendment to substitute reasonable cuts in other programs.
I do not think the Budget Act really intended to hamstring the Senate in this way. And I do not think it is fair to prevent votes on alternative provisions when the bill comes to the floor.
We have made great strides in our two years' experience with the reconciliation process. This year we ought to adopt an improvement to the "germaneness" rule, which I offered in committee, to ensure the openness and fairness of the process.