Trampling the Constitution.Byline: Donald R. Brand
COLUMN: AS I SEE IT
Reconciliation used to be a budgetary procedure familiar only to those who followed Congress closely. No more. Since the election of Scott Brown, reconciliation has emerged as the only plausible strategy for passing some version of the Democrats' comprehensive health care reform. If the House of Representatives enacts the Senate version of health care reform, then reconciliation will be used in the Senate to make the bill more acceptable to the House and to circumvent a Republican filibuster. This use of reconciliation is illegitimate and it violates the spirit of our constitutional system.
Reconciliation was established in 1974 as part of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. Designed as a procedure to bring revenue and direct spending within the parameters of the annual budget resolution, its intent was to facilitate fiscal discipline. Reconciliation would prevent minorities in the Senate from using the filibuster to prevent action intended to address the deficit.
Twenty-two reconciliation bills were passed between 1980 and 2008, and its uses have sometimes been controversial. In 2007, Senate Democrats complained of Republican abuses and they adopted rules establishing a point of order against reconciliation bills that increased the deficit over a ten-year period. The Byrd Rule (named after Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd and first adopted in 1985) also prohibits the use of reconciliation for any bill that would increase the deficit in future years. The history of reconciliation clearly indicates that it is only legitimate if it promotes fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction.
The most controversial examples of reconciliation prior to its proposed use for health care reform were its use by Republicans in 2001 and then again in 2003 to push through two Bush tax cuts. Democrats have argued that these tax cuts were major policy shifts that increased the deficit, and that Republican criticism of the Democrats' proposed use of reconciliation for health care reform is therefore hypocritical.
While the use of reconciliation for the Bush tax cuts was controversial, Republicans believed that tax cuts would stimulate economic growth and reduce the deficit in the ensuing years. Republicans pointed to John F. Kennedy's 1962 tax cuts to support this claim because Kennedy's reform promoted economic growth and actually increased tax revenues despite the cut in tax rates.
While the relationship between tax cuts and economic growth is complex, no one would dispute the claim that economic growth can alleviate deficit problems. We do not have to embrace supply-side economics to acknowledge this, nor do we have to conclude that the large Bush tax cuts were justifiable. What does follow, however, is that tax cuts are plausibly related to deficit reduction. Moreover, tax cuts can be rescinded, as is happening with the Bush tax cuts.
Are any of the Democratic health care reform plans plausibly related to deficit reduction? President Obama and congressional Democrats would have us believe this, and they can cite Congressional Budget Office evaluations to support this claim.
Unfortunately, these CBO evaluations are biased because the CBO must take at face value congressional assurance that they will enact further spending cuts in programs like Medicare. As Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has pointed out, there are a variety of other accounting gimmicks that disguise the budgetary strains that will result from the creation of a new health care entitlement.
Ryan's analysis is supported by simple common sense. The existing entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all facing serious financial problems. The costs of these programs invariably exceed the estimates of those who create them or expand them, and there is no reason to expect anything different from health care reform.
If the American people are going to assume the financial burdens of supporting a major new entitlement, it should be enacted through the regular legislative process with all of its attendant checks and balances. Entitlements are far more difficult to reverse than tax cuts are. Reconciliation should be reserved for bills that would plausibly reduce the deficit.
Donald R. Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
CUTLINE: Donald R. Brand