Hypocrisy on reconciliation for health reform?

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell today blasted U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., for supporting use of “reconciliation” to pass health-care reform legislation because that’s a tactic Republicans certainly would never use, even on an issue they felt was terribly important.

Oh, wait, scratch that. They did it too.

For the jargon-challenged, reconciliation is a Senate process intended to allow consideration of certain controversial, budget-related bills by limiting debate and amendment. Basically, it’s a way to get a bill passed without needing the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, in which a minority delays or entirely obstructs a vote on something by extending debate indefinitely.

“When Senator Barbara Boxer and her Democratic colleagues were in the minority in the US Senate, they would routinely block bills they opposed by using the 60-vote requirement to invoke cloture,” Campbell said in a statement issued today. “Now they’re complaining that the Republicans are doing the same thing, so they’re proposing an end run around the 60-vote requirement using ‘reconciliation’ – a process that’s reserved for bills legitimately and intimately related to the budget process. It was never intended for major policy bills.”

“Whether you like or dislike the Democrats’ health care bill, there’s no doubt it is a major policy proposal. If ‘reconciliation’ is used to jam this unpopular proposal through, it can be used for any purpose, essentially killing the 60-vote requirement,” he said.

Senate Republicans had no problem using reconciliation to jam through the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005, and the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

And does anyone really think bringing health-care costs under control while extending coverage to tens of millions of currently-uninsured Americans isn’t “legitimately and intimately related to the budget process?” If so, the Congressional Budget Office has some news for you:

The nation’s long-term fiscal balance will be determined primarily by the future rate of health care cost growth. If health care costs continued growing at the same rate over the next four decades as they did over the past four decades, federal spending on Medicare andMedicaid alone would rise to about 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050 — roughly the share of the economy now accounted for by the entire federal budget.

And that’s from three years ago. Still, Campbell continues:

“The 60-vote requirement is an important protection against major policy changes being adopted by the thinnest of majorities. While it’s not found in the Constitution itself, the bi-cameral nature of legislation indicates a desire to obtain broad consensus, not just a popular majority, before legislation is enacted.

“In the present context, that necessity is made even clearer by the resounding voice of the American people against what the Democrats attempted to push through as health care reform prior to the Massachusetts Senate election. The American people were particularly repulsed at the abuses of majority power by the special deals worked out for Nebraska and union members. They thought it truly unfair to tax those who have health care insurance packages more generous than what the Democrats’ bill considered ‘good enough,’ and then exempting union members from that tax.

“If Senator Barbara Boxer and her colleagues use ‘reconciliation’ to force their plan on the American people, they will have broken faith with the majority of those they represent, and further tarnished, if that were possible, the reputation of the Congress under Democratic rule.”

This isn’t a question of health-care policy; this is a question of political process, and how things do and don’t get done in Washington. Did the founding fathers intend for every big policy debate to be decided only by supermajority rule, rather than majority rule? Does bipartisanship extend to letting the minority party to stymie anything it disagrees with, and if so, what does “minority party” even mean?

Whatever party is in the minority will always have a big beef with reconciliation, no matter what the issue – nobody likes being told to be quiet and sit down, be they Democrats or Republicans. But who realistically expects one side to refrain from a tactic the other side has used so recently?

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • John W.

    Cram-down reconciliation would be if the Senate used reconciliation to pass a bill from scratch. In this case, however, the House and Senate have both passed bills — with a supermajority in the Senate. It’s totally legitimate for the House to accept the Senate bill, thereby eliminating the need for conference committee and another supermajority vote in the Senate. The reconciliation bill would be to tweak the already passed Senate bill. If the tweaks are reasonably related to budgetary and fiscal matters, there’s nothing wrong with this. As for Tom Campbell (whom I greatly respect), his observations about Democrats filibustering the Republicans are true to a point. But the Republicans have done this more times in one year than the Democrats did during the entire time Bush was in office. Some Senator puts a hold on even the most routine appointments, and the united GOP caucus blocks virtually every piece of legislation. When the Republican are back in charge of the White House and Senate, I’m sure the Democrats will return the favor with vengeance. It’s disgusting.

  • Ralph Hoffmann

    In the Year of the Tiger, reconciliation is appropriate.