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Lessons for Lovers of Long-Shelved Budget Reconciliation

Democrats, including then-Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, protested the Republicans using reconciliation in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Maybe if it was called “the gridlock slayer” instead of “budget reconciliation,” more people in the Capitol’s orbit would be getting excited about the revival of a form of legislative magic that hasn’t been practiced in almost five years.  

One of the biggest congressional stories of 2015 is going to be how the Republicans, in total control for the first time in eight years, conjure many of their boldest and fondest policymaking desires into a single legislative punch and then whisk the huge behemoth past Democratic senators stripped of their normal filibuster powers. The only potential mystery is whether they’ll end up watching helplessly as the entire conservative fireball gets vaporized with a few swooshes of President Barack Obama’s pen.  

That’s because the sorcery of reconciliation, while very powerful, has an even more forceful antidote: the veto.  

For those who’ve arrived on the Hill since the last midterms — after swearing-in day on Jan. 6, that will include at least 44 senators and about 48 percent of the House — a very short course in the recently moribund budget process may be helpful as a starting point. If even the narrowest majorities of the House and Senate support adoption of a budget resolution, which hasn’t happened since 2009, that document can order the production of legislation to tackle any and all fiscal policies. That means taxes may be increased or reduced, discretionary spending may be curbed or boosted, the debt ceiling may be raised or restricted, and all manner of mandatory or entitlement programs may be expanded, contracted or refashioned — from Medicare and Medicaid to farm subsidies; from veterans' benefits to school lunches.  

Such a reconciliation bill can’t be debated in the Senate for longer than 20 hours and non-germane amendments may not be offered, meaning that even 49 dissenting senators are powerless to stop it or even slow it down. Support from 90 percent of Republicans in the House next year, plus 95 percent of the new Senate GOP majority, in other words, would be enough to put such a package on the president’s desk.  

But that’s as far as it would be guaranteed to get. The lawmakers who invented reconciliation 40 years ago, in a statute boosting the congressional role in the federal budgeting system, were powerless to take away the veto power created by the Constitution. And there’s no chance that bipartisan, two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate would form to override Obama’s rejection of a measure to curb entitlements or remake the tax code , for example, entirely on the GOP’s terms.  

A rebutable presumption is that the Republican majorities will hold things together long enough to produce a congressional budget resolution for the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, 2015, with the necessarily broad-brush instructions for a reconciliation bill (or bills) included. The threshold question is whether the subsequent measure will be stuffed exclusively by the Republicans with almost nothing but veto bait — or written with winning the president’s signature in mind and maybe even with his input along the way.  

The answer will be the most consequential way in which GOP leaders reveal how they’re going to manage the fracture of their ranks that’s going to continue in 2015, no matter how the coming shutdown brinkmanship over immigration plays out — with the don’t-give-an-inch-to-Obama confrontational conservatives on one side and the we’ve-got-to-prove-we-can-govern mainstream conservatives on the other.  

The recent past points to the former camp winning the day, which would mean the writing of an entirely political package that would be dead on arrival from the start.  

Conservative advocacy groups are pushing hard for the GOP to use their reconciliation powers to advance legislation striking Obamacare from the books — viewing it as of paramount symbolic importance, in advance of 2016, for such a bill to get all the way through the process until the president himself is compelled to kill it. (There’s a bubbling parliamentary dispute, however, about whether the entire law, including the new rules for insurance companies, could be repealed using reconciliation, or only the majority of provisions that could be described as affecting federal spending and taxes.)  

There are other aspirations of the right that could make their way into a reconciliation bill designed to be vetoed. That includes limiting the reach of Medicaid; transforming Medicare by giving every older person a fixed amount to spend on medical care every year; altering the sequester spending caps due to return next year by giving more to the military at the expense of domestic programs; and including language boosting the Treasury’s borrowing limit in hopes of pressuring Obama to sign the package as a way to avoid blame for potential default.  

More than one reconciliation bill has moved in some years, so in theory next year’s budget could call for such an entirely political package as well as a “real” bill written with governance in mind. The centerpiece of such a measure would almost certainly be reductions in tax rates for U.S. companies (which are among the highest in the world) in return for limiting many of their myriad tax breaks — because both parties see big political, as well as economic, benefit in doing what they can to slow the tide of U.S. corporate investments and relocations overseas.  

The GOP might yet buy into Obama’s idea of generating some new revenue from such a corporate tax overhaul and using it to jumpstart languishing federal investments in highways. There’s even a chance such a not-quite-grand bargain could include some changes to the health care law that both sides could swallow. First on that list: Raising to 40, from 30, the number of hours someone must be working every week in order to qualify for mandated employer-provided medical insurance.  

History offers precedents for either outcome, but the past four decades have seen reconciliation used much more often for compromise than for confrontation in times of divided government.  

Clinton worked with Republicans to pass a budget via reconciliation. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Clinton worked with the GOP to pass a budget via reconciliation. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the closest apples-to-apples time period, when Republicans took over Congress in 1995 but were saddled with a Democratic president, they chose to unleash their pent-up conservative juices with a trio of deep tax cut reconciliation bills that Bill Clinton vetoed. But before leaving office he and the Republicans had also come to agreement on three more reconciliation measures — two budget-balancing packages and a welfare overhaul.  

Altogether, 13 reconciliation measures have become law in times of divided government, starting with the 1981 Reagan tax cut and most recently a revamp of student loan financing rules that a Democratic Congress got signed by President George W. Bush in 2007. That’s more than double the number (seven) enacted when the same party has controlled both the Capitol and the White House.  

The most recent of those included the heart of the 2010 health care law. That’s yet another reminder of how forced-march accomplishments of a unified government often prove evanescent, while it’s the achievements forged in compromise that prove more enduring.  

   

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