What is reconciliation?
What is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a legislative process used in the United States Senate when confronted with a controversial and heavily debated budget item. It is a way to get around the required 60 votes necessary to kill the minority party’s filibuster. The process of reconciliation was first introduced in the Senate in 1974. It streamlines and limits debate and the process of amending the bill, and only requires a simple majority of 51 votes. Reconciliation also exists in the House of Representatives, but has less significance or impact on the way the House operates since the House has a committee that passes rules that would limit debate and the amendment process. The House also always votes based on a simple majority every time.
In order to fully understand the concept behind “reconciliation,” you have to know two other definitions that go along with it (credit given to Wikipedia).
1. “A reconciliation instruction (Budget Reconciliation) is a provision in a budget resolution directing one or more committees to submit legislation changing existing law in order to bring spending, revenues, or the debt-limit into conformity with the budget resolution. The instructions specify the committees to which they apply, indicate the appropriate dollar changes to be achieved, and usually provide a deadline by which the legislation is to be reported or submitted.”
2. “A reconciliation bill is one containing changes in law recommended pursuant to reconciliation instructions in a budget resolution. If the instructions pertain to only one committee in a chamber, that committee reports the reconciliation bill. If the instructions pertain to more than one committee, the House Budget Committee reports an omnibus reconciliation bill, but it may not make substantive changes in the recommendations of the other committees.”
Reconciliation does have some positive uses. Since it was created for legislation pertaining to the budget which must be passed, it could avoid a possible shut down of the federal government. It becomes a negative procedure when it is used for something controversial or to change policy or create new expensive programs.
The process of reconciliation was first brought up in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 (more information here). Reconciliation was originally supposed to be used to improve the fiscal position of the government by reducing deficits or increasing surpluses. According to Wikipedia, “the language of the 1974 act referred only to ‘changes’ in revenue and spending amounts; not specifically to increases or decreases.” However, the uses of reconciliation have changed or have been modified since then. Former Senate Parliamentarian (basically the non-partisan official adviser to the Senate regarding parliamentary procedure), Robert Dove, is quoted on the Wikipedia article for reconciliation as saying that it “was never used for that purpose. But in 1975, just a year after it had passed, a very canny Senate committee chairman — Russell Long of Louisiana — came in to the Parliamentarian’s Office, and he kept having trouble with his tax bills because of the Senate rules. People were offering amendments to them that he didn’t like. They were debating them at length, and he didn’t like that. And he saw in the Budget Act a way of getting around those pesky little problems. And he convinced the Parliamentarian at the time — I was the assistant- that the very first use of reconciliation should be to protect his tax cut bill." Dove said this at a recent event on March 12th when he was part of a panel in which he defended the use of the filibuster as an act of slowing down debate after bills quickly pass the House by simple majority-- the reason many argue is the purpose of having the Senate in the first place. You can watch the video of the panel discussing this issue on C-Span.
Reconciliation has been used by both parties. Since 1980, 17 out of the 23 reconciliation bills have been signed into law by Republican presidents (a Republican has been president for 20 of the last 29 years). During this time period, this procedure has been used 9 times when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, 6 times when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, 1 time when the Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans controlled the House, and 7 times when Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House. The House must agree and be involved when the Senate wants to use reconciliation so they can start the procedure of creating a budget reconciliation bill since budget and revenue bills must start in the House.
Although it is supposed to be used to change and correct budget items, the process of reconciliation has been used a few times for a non-budgetary purpose. An example is the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 which was passed by a Democratic controlled Congress and a Republican president. The 1986 bill entitled Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, also known as COBRA (more info on Wikipedia), can also be considered an example of a non-budgetary item since it contained some health care provisions— something Democratic Senator Byrd of West Virginia, the most senior member of the Senate and creator of the practice of reconciliation, disapproved of because health care is such a huge portion of the economy and should be debated fully and have careful consideration since a comprehensive reform package would impact every single American. Eventually, the Byrd Rule (link leads to Wikipedia entry) was created. Named after Senator Byrd, the Rule was adopted in 1985 and amended in 1990. It prohibited the use of reconciliation for provisions that would increase the deficit beyond ten years after the reconciliation measure was passed.
The Byrd rule can be found in the US Code, which is where all law passed by Congress can be found. Check it out here. The Byrd Rule specifically listed six different cases in which a provision would be considered “extraneous” or irrelevant, and therefore not eligible for reconciliation (each of these cases are listed below with credit given to Wikipedia):
1. if it does not produce a change in outlays or revenues;
2. if it produces an outlay increase or revenue decrease when the instructed committee is not in compliance with its instructions;
3. if it is outside the jurisdiction of the committee that submitted the title or provision for inclusion in the reconciliation measure;
4. if it produces a change in outlays or revenues which is merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision;
5. if it would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure, though the provisions in question may receive an exception if they total in a Title of the measure net to a reduction in the deficit; and
6. if it recommends changes in Social Security
Despite this, President Clinton attempted to use reconciliation to pass his 1993 health care plan, but Senator Byrd, according to Wikipedia, “insisted that the health care plan was out of bounds for a process that is theoretically about budgets,” and the whole plan was dropped when it started to lose support in Congress. Most other instances in which reconciliation was used were for bills that pertained to the budget. Congress used it to enact Clinton’s 1993 budget for fiscal year 1994 (this is probably the bill on which his health care bill would have been attached). Two bills (the Taxpayer Refund and Relief Act of 1999 and the Marriage Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2000) were passed by Congress but vetoed by Clinton because using the reconciliation procedure for these bills was considered controversial.
The Bush administration used reconciliation to pass three major tax cuts (2001, 2003, and 2006), each of which was predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to substantially increase federal deficits mostly because spending was not cut as well and there was not enough revenue to cover for it. This bill did satisfy the Byrd Rule because the tax cuts were set to expire after ten years. Efforts to use reconciliation as a way to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling failed probably due to the controversy among environmentalists and the fact that it is not a budget item.
Since reconciliation can only be used to fix budget items, all bills that will be attached to the budget reconciliation bill must have already been passed and signed by the president even though they are not technically considered law yet. Reconciliation is then used to fix revenue, spending, and other budget-related issues in the bill or bills attached. Any non-budget provisions in these attached bills cannot be changed through reconciliation and therefore must be changed before the bill is officially passed. The process of reconciliation starts with the Senate Parliamentarian advising the Senate leadership on whether or not the issues in question can be considered budget-related. If the Parliamentarian advises that reconciliation cannot be used, the Vice President, in his role as President of the Senate, can overturn this ruling.
Since all revenue and budget bills must start in the House, the House is responsible for triggering the process by passing a concurrent resolution on the budget which instructs one or more committees to report changes in law affecting the budget by a certain date. These committees must then send their recommendations to the Budget Committee, which then packages the recommendations into a single omnibus bill. The House must pass this “reconciliation bill” and then the Senate starts its work on it. Debate on the bill is limited to only 20 hours and the number of amendments that can be made are limited as well.
Any Senator can raise a procedural objection to a provision that he or she believes to be extraneous according to the Byrd Rule. This is then ruled on by the Presiding Officer, who can be the Vice President, Senate Majority Leader, or anyone else that is temporarily appointed, but the Vice President under his role as President of the Senate, usually makes this decision no matter who is presiding during a particular meeting of the Senate. The Parliamentarian gives his advice to the Presiding Officer but this advice can always be overruled. Sixty votes in the Senate could overturn this ruling of the Vice President. If the advice given by the Parliamentarian (who usually makes decisions in a non-political way) is not liked by Senate leadership, his or her role can be given to the Senate Majority Leader, according to the Fire Dog Lake, a liberal blog, which talks about it in the context of the current health care bill. However, no Vice President has yet needed to overrule a Parliamentarian since 1975. Ex-Parliamentarian Robert Dove talks about reconciliation in the context of the current health care bill and advises the current Congress that reconciliation and health care do not mix. His views are reported on the Hill’s Blog Briefing Room. Read this post for more regarding reconciliation in regards to today’s health care debate.
For more information regarding reconciliation and for examples of past bills that were passed with this procedure, check out its Wikipedia page.
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