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Podcast: The Budget Reconciliation Process

I’m Michelle Bazie, Deputy Director of Communications here at the Center. Today, I’m joined by Jim Horney, Director of Federal Fiscal Policy, to talk about a little known, but powerful legislative tool called the budget reconciliation process in Congress.

1. Jim, I know that opinions on the subject depend on whether one is in the party that’s doing the reconciling, and I know that the word reconciliation means to reconcile, but first, tell us, what is reconciliation?

A: One of the key features of reconciliation are the specials rules under which reconciliation legislation is considered, in the Senate, in particular. In the Senate, most legislation is subject to unlimited debate, meaning if there’s a controversial bill, a determined minority simply can keep debating and if you can’t get 3/5th of the members of the Senate to vote for so-called “cloture” that shuts off the debate, you can never pass the bill, even if you have a solid majority n favor of the bill. Under the reconciliation rules, however, you can’t filibuster a reconciliation bill. There are 20 hours of debate, and ultimately you come to a vote, and if a majority of the Senators vote for the bill, then you can enact it.

2. So the reconciliation process was originally used to help Congress do the right thing, let’s say, to take steps that are in the nation’s best interest, but are hard politically. So why is reconciliation so important right now?

A: People are interested in reconciliation right now, even people who don’t follow the budget process closely, because the Congressional leadership is considering whether to use this process for the consideration of the health reform legislation that the President has proposed and the Congress has been considering.

Reconciliation process has been around, was in the original Budget Act of 1974, first used, really, in 1980. And what it is intended for is to allow the Congress to consider and pass important, but maybe controversial, budget legislation to implement needed changes in spending and revenues of the country.

3. So Jim, what’s at stake?

A: What is at stake here is whether we can enact legislation that will make reforms in our health care system. Both to make sure that everybody in this country has health care coverage, but also from a budget standpoint, to make sure that we put in place changes in the system that will allow us to start bringing the incredible growth of health care cost under control. Every budget expert who’s ever looked at our long-term deficit problem concludes that it is rising health care costs that will drive the deficits up to very, very high levels in coming decades if we don’t change the way the system operates. We have an opportunity now to do it; the reconciliation process may allow us a way to make sure that that legislation gets adopted.

4. Some people are charging that the majority are using reconciliation to pass health care reform by leaping over the regular legislative process, including filibuster by the minority party. Are these charges warranted?

A: It is certainly the case that the reconciliation process allows you to get around the filibuster in the Senate, but that’s exactly what it was intended to do when it was put into the Budget Act in 1974; to be used in occasions when there’s important legislation to be considered when it shouldn’t be held up just by a determined minority of Senators. And this certainly is not the first time that important legislation has been considered and enacted under reconciliation. The big tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, for instance, but also the state children’s health insurance program was established in 1997 in a reconciliation bill. Welfare reform was enacted in 1996 in reconciliation. So there’s a long history of very important, far-reaching legislation being considered and enacted through the reconciliation process which is exactly what the framers of the Budget Act had in mind in 1974.

Thanks so much for joining us today.