Libertarian Hawk


Reconcile This

September 02, 2009 By: Scott Spiegel Category: Health Care

In anticipation of the humiliating defeat of their socialized medicine scheme, Democrats are feverishly working to get their legislation passed by cheating.

Their plan, known as “budget reconciliation,” works as follows: (1) have Senate committees expand Medicaid, cut Medicare, force individuals to buy and businesses to offer insurance, give subsidies to low-income people and tax credits to small businesses, levy new taxes, and do everything else Democrats wanted to do in their health care bill but knew would never pass; (2) lump it all into a bill; and (3) pass it with 50 votes and no filibuster.

The bill would also contain language to support enactment of a health care overhaul, but because provisions unrelated to the budget cannot legally be included, the Senate parliamentarian will likely strike these from the bill.  According to the New York Times, which favors the reconciliation swindle, it is unclear whether two key elements will be allowed in the bill: the requirement that insurance companies accept all candidates and charge the same regardless of condition, and the creation of a government health insurance exchange.

The Times eggs Democrats on to declare that these two provisions, while irrelevant to the budget, “are so intertwined with other reforms that they are [necessary] for other provisions that do affect spending or revenues.”

If that ruse doesn’t work, the Times notes, then the process could “leave the reform package riddled with holes—perhaps providing subsidies to buy insurance on exchanges that do not exist, for example.”  In this eventuality, Democrats would pass a second bill, subject to filibuster, that fills in gaps where budget-irrelevant provisions were removed.

Ignore for the moment the fact that Democrats’ chess-playing skills obviously aren’t very good: to wit, why would Republican senators support a bill to prop up the reconciliation bill, if the two bills in combination would lead to an outcome they opposed in the first place?

Ignore, too, the stipulation that the reconciliation bill may not legally cause deficits to increase, which a health care overhaul clearly would do.

There’s just the inconvenient detail that reconciliation was never designed to be used for anything remotely like what Democrats propose to use it for.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Rules, the purpose of budget reconciliation is to “fine tune revenue and spending levels.”  Admittedly, in the Obama era, adding a trillion-dollar program here or there could be characterized as “fine tuning,” but I don’t think this is what the creators of reconciliation had in mind.

Democrats have offered the following compelling argument for using reconciliation to socialize health care: Republicans have used reconciliation!

Yes, Republicans have used reconciliation—for things it was supposed to be used for, such as adjusting tax rates and decreasing entitlement spending.  Claiming that reconciliation can be used for health care because Republicans have used it is like claiming that pesos can be used at Taco Bell because Mexicans have used them.

Even the New York Times admits, “The approach is risky.  Reconciliation bills are primarily intended to deal with budget items that affect the deficit, not with substantive legislation like health care reform.”  Note the sneaky, dishonest addition of “primarily.”

As Judd Gregg explained to Norah O’Donnell, who insisted Gregg was a hypocrite because he had favored reconciliation in the past, “Reconciliation is meant to adjust already existing programs.  You adjust tax rates, or you adjust already existing programs at the margin.  What’s being proposed here is, ab initio, a brand-new, major initiative which is the total rewrite of the health care system of the United States.”

President Clinton floated the idea of using reconciliation to pass health care legislation in 1993, but Senator Robert Byrd reminded him that reconciliation was meant to be used to square away budgets, not turn us into Canada.  In 2003, Congressional Republican leaders considered, then rejected, using reconciliation to pass their prescription benefits program.

In 2005, Senate Republicans introduced a provision allowing drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an attempt that failed when the provision was removed during reconciliation.  Whether this attempt was appropriate or not, it should be pretty clear that if we’re not allowed to use reconciliation to drill in a barren wilderness that makes up less than 0.5% of Alaska in the middle of an energy crisis and a war in Iraq, then it’s not appropriate to use budget reconciliation to take over 17% of the economy.

There’s a reason budget reconciliation was introduced as a separate parliamentary process: it was to be used to make adjustments to existing programs, not introduce massive new ones.  The total amount of debate time allowed for reconciliation is only 20 hours—about twice as long as Congress had to read the 1,600-page stimulus bill before voting, but still not very long.

By the way, I don’t fault Obama for threatening to violate the spirit of bipartisanship with the reconciliation maneuver, inasmuch as (1) I don’t favor Republicans in charge having to compromise when Democrats propose screwy ideas and (2) in order to put a halt to bipartisanship, Obama would have had to actually start practicing it first.  But it’s ironic that Congressional Democrats believe they are putting aside their longstanding, magnanimous display of bipartisanship by resorting to sleazy use of a tactic called “reconciliation.”

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