House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak after a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Tasos Katopodis | Getty Images
On his way to the Oval Office, President Joe Biden commendably went on to “restore the soul” of America and repeatedly emphasized a desire to work across the corridor. Why, some critics ask, are he and the Democrats in Congress using arcane fiscal rules to move their own $ 1.9 trillion US bailout?
To assess if this is a fair question, it is important to understand what the budgetary vote process is, what is not, and why it may be required at this particular moment.
First we need to remember the hardship we are in. We are nearing the one year limit for downtime and orders that are staying at home due to the pandemic, and people are still suffering. The distribution of the vaccine still lags behind where it needs to be when ingested. Unemployment benefits will expire on March 14th.
Reconciliation is a process that Congress put in place to expedite legislation to control spending, income and debt. As part of this process, Congress passes a budget resolution instructing the House and Senate committees to report bills that meet spending and revenue targets. From there, the budget committees consolidate the bills and send them to the full chambers for scrutiny under strictly controlled conditions.
These conditions, such as strict restrictions on how the bill can be put on the table, how long changes can be taken into account and the bill discussed, give it a powerful “privileged” status, which enables majorities to grant it quickly and if so move needed without minority support.
At a time when we find ourselves in a national emergency, Republicans shouldn’t let the attitude about the procedure prevent them from bringing good ideas to the table.
While this is an expedited process, there are still guard rails like the Byrd Rule – named after the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd – that checks which provisions can be included. For example, changes in social security cannot be taken into account, bills cannot add to the deficit beyond the period set in the resolution (typically ten years), and the provisions must be primarily budgetary (an attempt to reduce the backdoor legislation on political matters) prevent).
What budget alignment is not is new or novel. Since the introduction of the voting procedure in 1980, 21 reconciliation laws have been enacted and four have been vetoed. For example, Democrats used the reconciliation to pass healthcare changes in 2010, Republicans used it to pass tax cuts in 2017, and tried (and failed) to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
And despite the fact that a majority in the Senate can pass a reconciliation law on their own, there is no rule that says that reconciliation laws must be purely partisan. Republicans are still welcome to bring ideas to the table, and the “Vote a Rama” that comes with a reconciliation law is one of the most open and free-running processes for allowing any senator to propose a change to a law. At a time when we find ourselves in a national emergency, Republicans shouldn’t let the attitude about the procedure prevent them from bringing good ideas to the table.
So using a budget vote does not mean that President Biden will give up bipartisanism. It just means that he realizes that we are in the know when it comes to allocating more resources to respond to the pandemic. Americans in communities across the country desperately need Congress to act and pass laws that provide the economic relief needed.
Therefore, if the 60 votes normally required to pass a bipartisan law cannot be found, the Democrats will be entitled to continue on the path of reconciliation. Today’s needs are too great to accept inaction.
Therefore, the House Budgets Committee is likely this week to merge the bills from nine House Committees into one bill and send an emergency bill to the entire House. As the process unfolds, key priorities may fall by the wayside (for example, Democrats wanting a $ 15 minimum wage could likely break the Byrd Rule). Overall, however, the process provides an opportunity for government to respond quickly to an ongoing public health and economic crisis.
With the COVID-19 aid package passed, Democrats can also use a budget resolution for this fiscal year to sidestep partisan disputes and get more off the Biden agenda. That law of reconciliation could include infrastructure, health insurance and climate change laws – all important parts of Biden’s plan to build a better plan.
However, reconciliation can only be used in certain situations in Congress and should only be used when circumstances require it. The need to provide emergency relief is one such moment, but in the long run, the small majority in the House and Senate will ultimately require President Biden to maintain his desire to be non-partisan and that Republicans meet him at least halfway .
Heidi Heitkamp was the first female senator to be elected from North Dakota from 2013 to 2019 and is co-founder of the One Country Project.