10/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Demystifying The Media's Take On Budget Reconciliation

As the health care reform debate wends its way on, one option that Democratic Senators are increasingly talking about involves using the budget reconciliation process. The key advantage to using budget reconciliation is that it will avoid any filibuster threat and the requirement of a 60-vote supermajority for passage, requiring only 51 votes. This would allow Democratic proponents of health care reform to no longer be bound to the terms of Democratic senators like Max Baucus, who will undermine the reform on behalf of his health care industry donors, or Republican senators like Charles Grassley, who have been negotiating in bad faith.

However, should it come down to using budget reconciliation, you can expect the political punditocracy to inveigh against it. The foundation for this has already been laid. The AP, using a GOP talking point, has referred to it as "the nuclear option."

And if you've spent as much time as I have watching the Sunday morning chat shows, you'll know that there are no end of so-called experts and "political strategists" who have said that a health care reform bill that passes through budget reconciliation would be a weak bill, and that health care reform is simply too important and momentous an idea to be allowed to pass with so few votes. Sadly, the Obama administration has given voice to this idea themselves:

The goal of the Obama White House is to come up with a health-care plan that can attract bipartisan support. The president has told visitors that he would rather have 70 votes in the Senate for a bill that gives him 85 percent of what he wants rather than a 100 percent satisfactory bill that passes 52 to 48.

That's from an op-ed from avatar of bipartisanship David Broder, who seems to think that "there is a good reason for that preference."

When you are changing the way one-sixth of the American economy is organized and altering life for patients, doctors, hospitals and insurers, you need that kind of a strong launch if the result is to survive the inevitable vagaries of the shakedown period.

The whole concept of the post-legislative "shakedown period" seems to have been left out of my junior high school civic class. I am told this period will have "inevitable vagaries," though! Nevertheless, one thing I do recall from junior high is that the Constitution says that 50 senators and the vice president can pass whatever bills they bloody well please. And when the voters have put them in office, specifically to pass those laws they promised, so much the better.

Once you leave the environs of the Beltway, from within which Broder so successfully projects his awesome vagueness, you are likely to encounter actual Americans. Out there, in the real world, most people will have an awareness of various and sundry pieces of legislation, and the impact these laws have. What seems unlikely is that ordinary people will have any awareness whatsoever of the vote count by which those measures passed. To ordinary people, laws that pass with 95 votes are not more meaningful or significant than those that pass with 55. This is just a dumb, Beltway media obsession, that pointlessly mystifies the political process.

Yet, as obsessed as they are with this notion that bills that pass with more votes are intrinsically better, these same pundits also seem to have a short memory. In fact, the budget reconciliation process has been used to pass important legislation -- significant legislation. Matt Yglesias rounds up a grab bag of budget reconciliation highlights:

Ronald Reagan's groundbreaking tax cuts in 1981 were passed through reconciliation. So was Bill Clinton's 1993 budget. So were George W. Bush's tax cuts. Under Bush, congress even tried to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling via reconciliation--they failed because they couldn't get the fifty votes. There'd be nothing unusual about passing significant legislation through reconciliation. Nor would a reconciliation bill necessarily be an "inferior" one. It just might have to have a more limited subject matter.

The ANWR vote is an instructive case. As Matt notes, the measure failed to attract a majority in the reconciliation process. But imagine if it had. Would the enacted law be somehow less powerful for the want of ten or 20 more votes? Would a mere 51 votes have limited ANWR's environmental impact? Would more votes in the Senate have made the holes that were dug deeper, or made the oil extracted better? The answers to all of these questions is no.

Remember last October, when Sarah Palin said that the Vice President was "in charge of the U.S. Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better?" So many pundits made fun of her, for getting something so basic about the government so wrong! Many of the same people will soon be telling you that laws that pass with merely 51 votes are lesser laws than those that pass with huge majorities. This premise is significantly more inane than what they ridiculed Sarah Palin for saying.

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