The Senate is about to use a trick called “reconciliation” to pass Joe Biden’s Covid relief bill. Many Democrats want to go further and use this arcane rule to pass all kinds of policies that would never otherwise make it through – a rise in the minimum wage, climate policies, infrastructure, etc. But Tori Gorman, a budget expert at the Concord Coalition, says that might be a big mistake.
Listen to the full conversation here:
The following is an edited excerpt of our conversation on the Great Ideas podcast:
Matt Robison: We’re going to be hearing a lot about reconciliation soon. It’s a tiny rule that applies to how the US Senate does business. But it turns out to have giant implications for policy in America…everything from fighting the pandemic to addressing climate change. So what is it really?
Tori Gorman: Reconciliation is a series of steps that gets you to a special piece of legislation. Those steps involve the Congress passing a budget resolution that contains “reconciliation” instructions to committees. [Their work is then] stitched together into a single bill, a reconciliation bill, that has very special privileges that regular bills don’t have. For example, it only requires a simple majority. So you don’t need to worry about the 60 votes you typically need to avoid a filibuster.
Matt Robison: It seems like the idea of reconciliation has really evolved, since the original conception was tied to the budget. What [Senators] were originally saying was let’s make it easier to pass things that help us reduce the deficit. But it wasn’t long before they started to realize, hey, we could use this for a lot more.
Tori Gorman: That’s right. If you go back to when reconciliation was first envisioned, there was a general consensus that large deficits were a bad thing. The problem is over the last 10 – 20 years, each time we’ve put a reconciliation bill on the floor, there’s always been some concerted effort to push the boundaries just a little bit more. The temptation arises to start to glom as much as possible onto the reconciliation process.
Matt Robison: So is reconciliation a good way to work around the filibuster?
Tori Gorman: Reconciliation is not a good way to get around the filibuster [for many issues]. That’s because of the Byrd Rule, which strictly controls the contents of a reconciliation bill. Basically it says that something must have an impact on direct spending and revenues as its principal goal. So for example, you could include something that raises taxes, but you can’t overturn Roe versus Wade.
Matt Robison: So if this is not a great way to get around the filibuster for lots of issues, how should the Senate use reconciliation?
Tori Gorman: Frankly, I think reconciliation ought to go away. We’ve stretched the parameters and bastardized its purpose enough. And each side has had their turn to pass major legislation via reconciliation. Now I think reconciliation’s time is done. First, it’s really hard to create good legislation. It’s just a terrible way to create law. Second, legislation that’s created via reconciliation is not durable. Whatever you can pass with 51 votes and reconciliation, you can undo. We’ve seen that with the Affordable Care Act: because Democrats passed [some of it through] reconciliation, Republicans have been able to chip away at it.
What we need, what America needs, what business needs, what individuals need is sustainable, bipartisan legislation that stands the test of time. And reconciliation is not the way to get there.
The advice my father gave me sticks with me to this day. Singles win the game every time. You don’t always swing for the fences. If you can put people on base, you’re going to eventually score runs. So we should start with some small ball – bipartisan pieces of legislation that address the most pressing problems. Let’s focus on the 80% of the problems that we know that we can solve on a bipartisan basis. Then let’s talk about the other 20% after we build up some trust and some successes.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.