Reconciliation: The action of bringing to agreement, concord, or harmony. -- Oxford English Dictionary WASHINGTON -- But under Senate rules, "reconciliation" can be a means for coping with disharmony by deepening it. The tactic truncates Senate debate and curtails minority rights. The threat to use it to speed enactment of health care reform has coincided with talk about possible prosecutions relating to the previous administration's interrogation policies. Harmony is becoming more elusive.
Under "reconciliation," debate on a bill can be limited to 20 hours, enabling passage by a simple majority (51 senators, or 50 with the vice president breaking a tie) rather than requiring 60 votes to terminate debate and vote on final passage. The president and Senate Democrats have decided to use reconciliation by Oct. 15, unless Republicans negotiate compliantly regarding health care. But the threat of reconciliation mocks negotiations.
The reconciliation process was created in 1974 to facilitate adjustments of existing spending programs. Former Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says using reconciliation to ram through health care reform would "circumvent the normal and customary workings of American democracy." But those workings have changed markedly.
The most important alteration of the legislative process in recent decades has been the increasingly promiscuous use of filibusters to impose a de facto supermajority requirement for important legislation. And "important" has become a very elastic term.
It should be difficult for government to act precipitously. "Great innovations," said Jefferson, "should not be forced on slender majorities." Revamping health care -- 17 percent of the economy -- qualifies as a great innovation. This is especially so because the administration and its allies, without being candid about what is afoot, are trying to put the nation on a glide path to a "single-payer" -- entirely government-run -- system. They would do this by creating a government health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. It would be able to -- indeed, would be intended to -- push private insurers out of business.
But when Republicans ran the Senate, they, too, occasionally made dubious use of reconciliation. And Republicans' merely situational commitment to legislative due process was displayed in 2003 when they held open a House vote for three hours until they could pressure enough reluctant Republicans to pass the prescription drug entitlement.