On Reconciliation, Both Parties Agree: The Other Side Is Right!


Now that the bipartisan health care squawkathon is, praise the gods of C-SPAN, finally over, Democratic legislators can finally get down to the important business of ignoring the polls and radically overhauling the entire U.S. health care system via party-line vote. To do so, they'll have to use a budgetary process known as reconciliation, which allows Democrats, who no longer control a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, to circumvent a Republican filibuster with a simple 51-vote majority.

Republicans, naturally, are grumbling that using reconciliation would circumvent the rights of the minority party. To make the case against reconciliation, I'll turn it over to, um…a collection of 2005 statements about reconciliation by (among others) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?

Ah, yeah. So, it turns out that, when it comes to legislative procedure, views about what's acceptable and what isn't tend to shift in ways that conveniently line up with a party's current political and legislative agenda. Where does that leave us? Well, on the question of whether it's some kind of moral outrage or perfectly acceptable way to govern, I think Jay Cost nails it:

When it comes to legislative procedure, I am a strict Hobbesian. There is what a Senate majority can do, and what it can't do. "Appropriate" or "inappropriate" are not applicable phrases. Congress is sovereign over its own procedures, which are the product of self-interested members working to secure reelection and/or policy goals. Morality doesn't enter into it. (See the note at the bottom of this post for another thought on this topic.)

I'll go a step further to suggest that people with strong policy preferences should rarely be listened to in a debate about appropriate procedure. People who care intensely about the final vote tally often don't care how the votes are counted, so long as they get their preferred outcome. This is why there was no hue and cry coming from most of these born-again majoritarians on the left when the Democrats were looking to filibuster judicial nominees in 2005. It is easy to find numerous examples of conservative hypocrisy on this subject, too.

The crucial question, though, is how the public will react, and on that, it's tough to say for sure. There's no polling data that I'm aware of to support one position or another, but my instinct is that it won't poll well; anything that smacks of procedural trickery, whether it's a long-standing part of the playbook or not, tends to be greeted with a big public frowny face. Both parties have their data points and their narratives—ex-parliamentarians are skeptical! but reconciliation has been used 19 times since 1981, mostly by Republicans!—but what will likely matter most in the end is whether it's seen as politically appealing by elected officials whose jobs are on the line. Of course, it's entirely possible that it doesn't matter either way; reconciliation won't be an issue at all if the House can't first gin up the votes to pass the Senate bill—and everyone agrees that, at least right now, those votes don't exist.

Update: A Gallup poll released yesterday that I hadn't noticed confirms my intuition: There's significant public opposition to the use of reconciliation: "By a larger 52% to 39% margin, Americans also oppose the Democrats in the Senate using a reconciliation procedure to avoid a possible Republican filibuster and pass a bill by a simple majority vote." (Thanks to Philip Klein for the pointer.)