Ah, the Joys of Reconciliation

Posted November 1, 2005 at 6:47pm

In July, more than 100 House staffers crammed into the Budget Committee hearing room for a refresher course on the complicated legislative process known as reconciliation.

Surprisingly, when the panel’s chief of staff, Jim Bates, had finished his PowerPoint presentation, almost no one in attendance asked any questions. So that meant they all understood reconciliation perfectly, right?

Not exactly.

“After that [session] we got an enormous amount of phone calls asking questions,” said Budget spokeswoman Angela Kuck.

Apparently, many of the aides were embarrassed to reveal in front of their co-workers that they didn’t understand reconciliation.

But they shouldn’t have been. While the Senate will debate a package this week that stands to net roughly $32 billion in mandatory savings and the House Budget panel will move forward with a $39 billion package, many Members and aides admit privately that they don’t completely grasp the, ah, nuances of the (cough) process.

“Reconciliation is used by the Catholic community as a sacrament and by everyone else as forgiveness,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “Up on Capitol Hill it has a completely different meaning. … It’s like speaking in Latin.”

Indeed, a quick Amazon.com search for “reconciliation” first brings forth several fascinating titles on theology, but it also does yield such tomes as “The Federal Budget: Politics, Policy, Process” (current sales rank: 390,481) and the classic “The Budget Puzzle: Understanding Federal Spending.”

For those Hill denizens who aren’t in the mood for curling up by the fire with a budget policy book or a CRS report, the Web also can be helpful.

As the Library of Congress writes helpfully on its THOMAS Web site, “One of the mechanisms Congress uses to implement the constraints on revenue and spending is called the reconciliation process. Reconciliation is a multiple-step process designed to bring existing law in conformity with the most recently adopted concurrent resolution on the budget. … The Budget Act maintains that reconciliation provisions must be related to reconciling the budget.”

There’s more where that came from, but why not just go to the real experts — the Members themselves.

“What I always thought is that it should be called something else,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). “We get wrapped up in the language of process, and it hurts us.”

Rehberg said he tells his staff never to use the word “reconciliation” when dealing with constituents. His specific instructions are: “You need to speak in American language, not government language.”

As a former Hill aide, Rehberg said he was fortunate enough to understand reconciliation even before this year’s debate. So does he have a catchy way to explain the process?

“Not one that takes less than 30 seconds,” he admitted.

“It’s certainly tough to explain back in your district,” agreed Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the House’s most vocal budget hawks.

Flake doesn’t profess to be an expert on the subject, but said that being a member of the House’s conservative group has its privileges.

“Fortunately at the Republican Study Committee we always have a budget guy” to explain things, Flake said.

Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), a veteran appropriator, said he never mentioned reconciliation in his district either.

“I think it’s just one more step in making sausage,” Hobson said. “This is an inside baseball thing.”

Hobson said it was not surprising that many lawmakers had trouble explaining the subject.

“I would doubt if you went to a lot of political science professors if they could explain it either,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been too critical of the GOP’s reconciliation plans to think of a better way to describe the process.

“That’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “You can’t sell bad policy.”

But not every lawmaker has trouble summing up reconciliation.

“It’s government reform,” said House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). “In a nutshell, that’s what it is.”

Yet even with his powers of simplification, Nussle said he still felt the need to call it reconciliation rather than something less mystifying.

“We’re kind of stuck with that 1974 term,” he said, referring, of course, to the year Congress created the reconciliation process by passing the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act.

While Nussle’s panel has done yeoman’s work on reconciliation — and held the July refresher course for staff as well as two more for reporters — it has yet to figure out a definition of the process that would look good on a bumper sticker.

“Reconciliation is basically slowing the growth of mandatory spending,” said panel spokeswoman Kuck. “So no, that’s not catchy, is it?”