Numbers Don't Lie, but Politicians Do - or, Kent Conrad and EJ Dionne Get It Right

05/04/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Robert Byrd just came out in favor of using reconciliation in health reform. Since reconciliation's also known as the "Byrd rule," that's a definitive a confirmation of its legitimacy as you can get. It's like having Chuck Berry saying "that's a good Chuck Berry lick," or having Mary propose a "Hail Mary pass."

And the stars realigned themselves this week for progressives, who found forceful new allies and advocates in unexpected quarters. Sen. Kent Conrad became the new spokesperson for Truth, Justice, and the American Way on health reform, and E. J. Dionne used the right word for those assertions that the health reform bill is being "rammed" through in an unprecedented way.

The word was "lies."

Supporters of the public option give Conrad a great deal of the blame for its demise, and not without reason. But after his comments on Senate procedure were widely distorted in the press this week, Conrad had strong words on two subjects close to their hearts: Journalistic incompetence, and the appropriateness of reconciliation as a path to enacting health reform.

Conrad's comments were made in a phone interview with Greg Sargent of the Plum Line. "Reporters don't seem to be able to get this straight," Conrad told Sargent. "Comprehensive health reform will not work through reconciliation." (Emphasis mine.) "But if the House passes the Senate bill, and wants certain things improved on ... that is something that could be done through reconciliation."

Conrad's anger at what he called "misreporting" is certainly justifiable. With all the coverage we've had about Senate procedure and this "arcane" rule, it makes sense to ask how much they covered the Republican use of reconciliation in 2003? As Jamison Foser reports, they didn't.

Conrad expanded on his remarks in a talk with Ezra Klein. Conrad explained that his widely-reported comment that "comprehensive" health reform couldn't be passed through reconciliation was taken out of context, since it has already passed with a 60-vote margin. Changes to a bill that affect spending and revenue are appropriate for the reconciliation process. That's what reconciliation is designed to do -- to "reconcile" budgetary differences between House and Senate legislation. "A sidecar would be a good candidate for reconciliation," added Conrad, "depending on what's in it." The term "sidecar, " as used by Senators like Judd Gregg last year, refers to any bill that changes previously-passed legislation.

Abortion and immigration fixes would not be candidates for reconciliation, according to Conrad's interpretation, because they do not primarily affect the budget. But the level and type of taxes, Medicaid provisions, the percentage of Medicaid paid by the Federal government, and affordability would all qualify for reconciliation fixes.

Dionne made the same procedural points that Conrad did, and rightfully singled out Orrin Hatch's mendacious op-ed in the Post as an example of the hypocritical talk about reconciliation.

How about Hatch's claim that Senators are using "an arcane budget procedure to ram through the Senate a multitrillion-dollar health-care bill that raises taxes, increases costs and cuts Medicare"? Leaving aside the lie about "cutting Medicare," Hatch's figures are off ... by, oh, a few trillion or so.

The fact is, an $871 billion bill has already passed the Senate. The president's proposal, which splits the difference on a number of discrepancies between the House and Senate bills, weighs in at a total estimated cost of $950 billion. So Senators would be asked to vote for a reconciliation bill that spends less than $80 billion.

How does Hatch's current outrage compare to his position in 2003, when a round of Bush tax cuts was passed using reconciliation (and Dick Cheney's tie-breaker vote as Senate president pro tem)? Numbers don't lie, even when Senators do. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the ten-year cost of that bill (not all the Bush tax cuts, just the one passed that year through reconciliation) at $415 billion. Do the math: The reconciliation process Hatch calls "unprecedented in scope" would cost about one-sixth as much as the 2003 reconciliation tax bill.

Needless to say, Hatch voted for the tax cut.

The president's proposal makes only minor changes on the revenue side, making the tax burden fairer than it was under the original Senate bill. And the President spends more money to make premiums affordable. While the Presidential proposal costs more than the Senate's proposal, it costs less than the House bill, which originally priced out at just over $1 trillion for the same time period (according to the CBO's estimate).

The president's proposal reconciles the cost difference between the two bills. And now that he's gone on record as favoring "an up-or-down vote" on the bill (a little rhetorical jujitsu against Republicans), the strong implication is that he's pushing reconciliation as the preferred procedure, despite his reluctance to use the word. But since his objective is to reconcile the two bills, it's the right process, whatever word you choose.

As for the reform bill itself, it's still suffering politically from the nonstop battering its been receiving for the last few months. But it's on the comeback trail in the polls, although it's still got a way to go. As Jonathan Chait notes, centrist Democrats are beginning to understand that the political penalty for passing no bill may be greater than the penalty for passing this bill.

Know what else would be a perfect policy to pass through reconciliation -- one that would reduce the Federal deficit? The public option. And 34 Senators are on record saying they want to try. But with or without the public option, reconciliation is the appropriate process for completing the health reform process. Anyone who says otherwise - and yet voted for that 2003 reconciliation bill -- is a hypocrite. And, though it's not polite to say it in the Senate, anybody who says that reconciliation's being used for an "unprecedented," "multitrillion dollar" initiative is, well, lying.

If guess if E. J. Dionne says it, it's not just rude-blogger talk. Besides, we've got the numbers to prove it.


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer, is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. Richard blogs at: