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Upon flipping the TV channels at night and seeing an elected official commit a particularly egregious act of hypocrisy, I often muse to my wife, "They’re not like you and me. They’re politicians. They can do things with a straight face that we can’t." And that brings us to Republican whining over prospects that Democrats may use budget reconciliation to enact health care reform.
Oh, the horror! Reconciliation – the process by which a simple majority in the Senate can pass legislation and, thus, prevent a minority from filibustering it to death. A simply majority – and in a democracy no less. Oh, the horror!
And to what do we owe this possibility? Senate Republicans are abusing the hallowed tradition of the filibuster, once reserved for rare occasions, and using it to stop anything in the majority’s agenda with which they disagree. No longer must the majority just stick together. Now, lacking 60 votes, it can do nothing with which the minority disagrees.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib noted, cloture votes to try to end a filibuster (reflecting the soaring use of filibusters themselves by both parties) have risen from zero in the Congress of 1957-58 to six in 1967-68, 13 in 1977-78, 43 in 1987-88, 53 in 1997-98, and a whopping 112 in 2007-08.
The Senate, Seib says, is on track to exceed that number in the current Congress. The New America Foundation’s Peter Beinart estimates that Senate Republicans have filibustered 80 percent of major bills in this Congress.
Republicans’ hypocrisy reaches full flower in their objections to reconciliation as the vehicle for major legislation, such as health care. As former GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist wrote in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, "[t]his process was intended for incremental change to the budget – not sweeping social legislation."
Actually, the process, which was created under the 1974 Budget Act, was designed to force various congressional committees to approve legislation within the tax and spending guidelines of the annual budget resolution and, at least in spirit, to better enable Congress to reduce the deficits of that era.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Congress tapped reconciliation both to reduce the deficit and to, among other things, establish the COBRA extended health insurance program (1985), reform welfare (1996), and create the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicare Advantage (1997).
So, reconciliation has never been a stranger to "sweeping social legislation." What was strange and ground-breaking occurred in 2001 when, for the first time, Congress (in GOP hands) used reconciliation to push through massive tax cuts that, along with the tax cuts of 2003 that also came through reconciliation, helped turn record budget surpluses of the late 1990s to the record deficits of today.
Now, Democrats are threatening to use reconciliation to prevent Republicans from filibustering health reform to death, to pass this major piece of legislation that would actually reduce long-term deficits.
Oh, the horror!
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.