The Rule That Broke the Senate

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This month, as congressional leaders ready their various budget and tax proposals for fiscal year 2018, Republican hopes hinge on the use of budget reconciliation—a way to expedite the lawmaking process for certain bills by immunizing them from the threat of filibuster and limiting the scope of amendments. In short, if the House and Senate can each pass the same budget resolution, it starts a process in which they can reconcile any differences between the two bills in a final proposal both chambers then vote on.

At the moment, the House and Senate proposals for fiscal year 2018 are quite sweeping in scope. The House resolution calls for $200 billion in mandatory spending cuts, while the Senate bill would cut taxes by $1.5 trillion. If Congress can agree on a final budget resolution, House and Senate committees will have no choice but to write legislation meeting whatever “reconciliation directives” they are given by the budget resolution.

There’s just one big problem: Budget reconciliation was never meant to be used like this. Once a tool to ease partisan gridlock, reconciliation has become part of the problem, used to reinforce the very problems it was designed to help fix.

As envisioned in the original 1974 Budget Act, budget reconciliation was limited in scope: a two-week exercise in late September of each year to tweak the spending and tax bills that had already passed earlier in that session. It was not built for legislation sweeping in scope and scale. Allen Schick, the Congressional Research Service specialist tasked with helping Congress draft the 1974 Act, later wrote that “reconciliation was intended to deal with legislative decisions made during the interval between adoption of the first budget resolution and consideration of [a] second resolution [in September, just before the start of the fiscal year].” But it was never used this way.

As re-imagined in 1980, budget reconciliation was a way to temper partisan gridlock: Its first major use happened under President Jimmy Carter and was largely supported by congressional Republicans as a way to circumvent the powerful Democratic “old bulls” who sat as committee chairmen. Reconciliation’s subsequent uses in the 1980s required the Republican president’s signature on a bill passed by a Congress in which Democrats controlled at least one chamber. Reconciliation shifted to the beginning of the annual budget cycle—instead of tweaking bills passed earlier in the year, reconciliation now had to look back at laws passed by prior Congresses. It was a useful legislative tool, but as its use became routine, it started being brandished as a weapon for increasingly partisan governance.

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