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Can We Please Stop Talking About Reconciliation?

My fellow Roll Call columnist Norman Ornstein was one of the authors of a truly excellent chart on reconciliation that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday. Norm, and his two co-authors, Tom Mann and Raffaela Wakeman, show in an almost full-page display that reconciliation has been used repeatedly since 1981 and is anything but the, in their words, “power grab” that some are trying to get us to believe it will be if it is used for legislation related to health care reform.

[IMGCAP(1)]They also show that reconciliation has been used when Democrats and Republicans were in the majority; to increase and decrease the deficit; to increase and decrease spending and revenues; and to create, expand and decrease programs.

No matter how much you might prefer it to be otherwise, this is not partisan opinion, beliefs or analysis. They are indisputable facts that are neither new nor newly discovered.

So let me say this as directly as possible: Enough about reconciliation. It absolutely doesn’t deserve the attention it’s receiving.

Why is anyone talking so much about a subpart of the Congressional budget process (and a sub-subpart when you add in the Byrd Rule) when the issue that really needs to be debated in depth is health care reform?

I am a budget process wonk. I have spent much of the past three decades speaking about and analyzing the ins and outs of the Congressional Budget Act (which created reconciliation) and its successor budget laws. The more people talk about reconciliation and want information on it, the more likely they are to quote me in stories and interview me on television and radio. In other words, the fact that reconciliation is an issue is good for my business.

When someone like me, who has a personal interest in reconciliation being a big controversy, says it’s a side issue that not only doesn’t merit the attention it’s getting but shouldn’t be an issue at all, you have to understand both how painful it is to say and how seriously the point should be taken.

I had this same basic argument a year or so ago with someone who insisted that the United States should have a capital budget. He was willing to fight to the death to change the way the U.S. treated capital expenditures. To sell his point he prepared white papers, talked one on one with countless people in the House and Senate, participated in seminars and persuaded think tanks to include it as a high priority on their agendas.

I told him at the time that the real issue wasn’t the budget treatment of federal capital purchases; it was that the U.S. was underinvesting in infrastructure. But instead of spending his time talking about the benefits of the change that he wanted, for example, on what it would mean if roads could be driven more quickly and safely so that people would get home from work earlier and spend more time with their families, he focused on accrual accounting for the federal government.

Even I, a budget process aficionado who served on a presidential commission on capital budgeting, found that boring and largely beside the point. And, not surprisingly, the issue died.

The same thing is happening now with reconciliation and health care.

There are three reasons why the debate should not be whether this is an appropriate way to adopt legislation.

First, as Norm and his collaborators showed quite definitively Sunday and what we actually knew long before the chart was published, that issue was settled a long time ago.

Second, the most important question is not about the process; it’s about the changes in health care that would be put in place and, like the safer and faster ride home that might happen with better roads and rail, what it would mean for the way we live.

Third, debating the propriety of using reconciliation is a great way to turn off the interest in health care reform outside the Beltway. For most people, “reconciliation” is something you do when you get your monthly checking account statement or what you try to do when you go to a marriage counselor. Outside that it has no meaning.

Those for and against a health care bill may have made a huge mistake in focusing so much of their energies on reconciliation. Not only is it ultimate inside legislative procedure roughly akin to trying to make an issue about Section 302b allocations (Trust me, if you don’t know what these are, you don’t need to worry about them), it effectively means that a good part of the outside interest in the issue will end if the procedure is used, a bill is enacted and the world doesn’t come to an end.

Meanwhile, those who support changes in health care have been engaging on a highly technical procedural issue and, therefore, giving it unnecessary credence. They have also been missing an outstanding opportunity to talk about what the changes will mean to the average voter. It’s hard to imagine that the average voter will support health care reform because reconciliation was or wasn’t used to put it in place.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of
the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The
Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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