NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 27, 2009

Late last week President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders agreed to use "budget reconciliation" if necessary to jam a massive health-care bill through Congress.  This decision is a deeply troublesome attempt to circumvent the normal and customary workings of American democracy.  It's a radical departure from congressional precedent, in which budget rules have been designed and used to reduce deficits, not expand the size of government. And it promises bitter divisiveness under an administration that has made repeated promises to reach across the partisan divide, says John Sununu, a Republican U.S. senator from New Hampshire from 2003-2009.

Reconciliation was established in 1974 as a procedure to make modest adjustments to mandatory spending such as farm programs, student loans and Medicare that were already well established in law.  Over the past 35 years, it has been used only 22 times -- and three of those bills were vetoed. 

There are good reasons it has been used so rarely, says Sununu:

  • The annual congressional budget resolution is simply an outline of federal spending anticipated for the coming fiscal year.
  • It doesn't appropriate any funds or carry the force of law, and as a practical matter only two parts of the resolution have any meaningful effect on the spending bills and other legislation that move through Congress during the remainder of the year.
  • The resolution sets limits for discretionary spending and allows procedural points of order to be raised later in the year against spending bills that exceed these caps. Second, the budget resolution may include a "reconciliation" figure.
  • This is, effectively, a dollar amount assigned to a congressional committee, with instructions to produce legislation that decreases projected spending by the specified amount.

The power of a reconciliation bill is this:

  • Senate rules allow only 20 hours of debate and then passage with a simple majority of 51 votes.
  • This represents a lightning strike in the normal deliberative time-frame of the Senate.
  • The historic precedent of open debate, and the requirement of 60 votes to close debate, are completely short-circuited.

Budget reconciliation was never intended to push through dramatic and expansive new programs.  It was created as a way to help a reluctant Congress curb spending, reduce deficits, and cut the debt.  Moreover, changes made under reconciliation expire after five or 10 years, depending on the budget.  This is clearly not the appropriate process for implementing significant new policies, says Sununu.

Source: John Sununu, "National Health Care With 51 Votes; Ramming a bill through Congress is not in the public interest," Wall Street Journal,

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