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Reconciliation Hasn’t Always Been a Street Fight

Ryan has invited "front line poverty fighters" as his guest for the State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Ryan has invited "front line poverty fighters" as his guest for the State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The budget reconciliation process sounds complicated and partisan, but it wasn’t always so.  

The legislative tactic, which is popular because it averts the Senate filibuster, aims to align taxes and spending with the annual budget resolution that Congress can, but doesn’t always, pass. It’s a way to change high-profile programs, such as entitlements or the tax code, without having to worry about as many procedural roadblocks.  

Basically, in partisan times, partisan legislation is easier to pass using reconciliation. Take this week’s debate in the House, which was marked by sharp rhetoric about the reconciliation bill’s purpose of repealing the heart of the Affordable Care Act and prohibiting federal funding for Planned Parenthood.  

House Sends ACA Repeal to Obama’s Desk

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For Republicans, “Obamacare is wreaking havoc on our country, on small business owners, working families and even on students,” Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said on the floor while arguing for passage Wednesday.  

For Democrats, “this reconciliation bill would cause an estimated … 22 million Americans to lose their health care, increase premiums by approximately 20 percent, provide employers with much uncertainty, and worsen the outlook for deficits,” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., countered.  

Not counting the current bill, which passed 240-181 Wednesday and is headed for a certain veto by President Barack Obama, 23 reconciliation bills have been sent to the president since the procedure was first used in 1980; only three were vetoed. Of the 20 signed into law, 13 of those happened in a time of divided government, a sign of bipartisan cooperation.  

That’s easy to forget, perhaps, because reconciliation was last used in March 2010 to pass the Affordable Care Act, which became the animating issue in U.S. politics. The current bill returns serve, gutting the health care law.  

Not surprisingly, both parties have dug in. Even though Republicans didn’t come close to a veto-proof margin in Wednesday’s vote, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has promised to schedule a veto override vote soon, providing more opportunity for partisan sparring.  

But the previous time reconciliation was used before the Affordable Care Act wars, in 2007, a Democratic Congress sent President George W. Bush a measure that reconfigured the federal student loan system, establishing programs for public service loan forgiveness and an income-based student repayment plan.  

“I’m really looking forward to signing this bill. I love the fact that this country is dedicated to helping people who want to realize a dream,” Bush said in the Sept. 27, 2007, signing ceremony, surrounded by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and a host of members from both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah; and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.  

Bush did sign four other reconciliation bills sent over by a Republican Congress, including some party-line favorites such as the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.  

President Bill Clinton was sent seven reconciliation bills. One from a Democratic Congress in 1993, the rest by GOP congresses. He vetoed three of them, all sent over by Republican majorities, including the Balanced Budget Act of 1995, part of the rough-and-tumble winter budget wars in 1995 and 1996. But he also signed measures passed by a GOP Congress that overhauled the welfare system, a signature domestic policy achievement of Clinton’s administration.  

Before Clinton, President George H. W. Bush signed two measures sent over by Democratic congresses, and in his eight years in office, President Ronald Reagan signed seven reconciliation bills. During that time, his party only controlled one chamber of Congress, the Senate, and that was only from 1981 to 1987.  

Among the measures Reagan signed was the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. That’s the measure that allows people to continue to pay for employee health care coverage even if they’ve lost that job. People refer to that provision simply as “COBRA.”  

More than almost any other issue, health care comes up again and again in reconciliation.


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