The legislative tactic known as “reconciliation” uses a soothing word to mask an ugly reality. Far from the dictionary definition of “restoring to friendship and harmony,” the Congressional term “reconciliation” suggests the spurning of cooperation and the brute use of partisan power. Worst of all, in the case of Obamacare, it also involves a dangerous, destructive violation of democratic principle.
The original idea of reconciliation, first employed in 1980, involved desperate efforts during the Carter era to bring the exploding federal deficit under control –a goal embraced by both political parties. As the New York Times described it (March 7, 2010): “Reconciliation was intended to be a narrow procedure to bring revenues and spending into conformity with the levels set in the annual budget resolutions.” Appropriately, the earliest examples of the procedure drew overwhelming bi-partisan support. In 1981, the Senate Passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act by 80-14, and the House by a near unanimous voice vote. Four years later, Congress approved the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act by a vote of 78-1 in the Senate, and 230-154 in the House. In the Clinton Administration, the Republican Congressional leadership used reconciliation to pass welfare reform, but once again the bi-partisan votes proved overwhelming – 78-21 in the Senate, 346-85 in the House.
In the decades that followed, a few measures cleared the Congress through reconciliation on closely divided, largely partisan votes – including the Bush-era Jobs and Growth Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act of 2003 (passing the House by 231-200, and the Senate through the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Cheney, 51-50). The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 succeeded with even narrower margins – 51-50 (again) in the Senate, and 212-206 in the House. Both of these measures, however, used the reconciliation tool for the purposes for which it had been intended—budgetary and tax policy adjustments designed to produce spending and taxation levels in line with previously declared Congressional goals.
The attempt to use reconciliation to jam through Obamacare represents a drastic and dangerous departure: an effort to create a new obligation on every American that would pass by the narrowest possible margin. Establishing a universal mandate to buy health insurance – an intrusion on the freedom and privacy of every American – involves far more than “bringing revenues and spending into conformity with the levels in the annual budget resolution.”
More important, it violates democratic principles at the very heart of the idea first articulated in the Declaration of Independence – that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In what sense do the “governed” consent to Obama’s health care take-over – when every national survey, and the avalanche of constituent communication with Congress, indicate impassioned and overwhelming opposition to the so-called reforms? The most recent Rasmussen Survey shows that independent, unaffiliated voters – the same voters who placed Obama in the White House – oppose his health care proposals by a margin of 64% to 32%. How could the people more decisively demonstrate their opposition to this misguided policy beyond the mass-demonstrations, unprecedented petition drives, phone calls, e-mails and letters that have already swamped our elected representatives?
The President and his allies assure nervous Democrats in Congress that the public will readily embrace the new legislation once they’re presented by a fait accompli ---promising that even though the majority hates the reforms now, the public will ultimately learn to love it.
This obnoxious attitude expresses the very essence of liberal elitism: the idea that enlightened policy-makers know best, and that the great unwashed will eventually appreciate the fact that their betters imposed changes that were ultimately good for them. It’s hard to share the Democratic confidence in a turnaround in public sentiment – especially since the higher taxes to pay for the changes will kick in almost immediately, but the promised benefits will wait till 2014 (at the earliest).
In any event, the real motivation of the president and his henchman appears to be partisan politics, more than the public interest. On Capitol Hill, the Democratic leadership emphasizes the dire consequences if the administration fails in the principal purpose of the president’s first year: the majority party will look feckless and impotent, painfully vulnerable to GOP attack. According to this line of reasoning, any health care bill – no matter how flawed or ineffective – can still draw media praise as an historic achievement and most voters may well forget about it in a few months. In other words, the Obama minions will take a risk on a chaotic and job-killing health-care takeover for the sake of protecting their own sorry backsides in the upcoming midterm elections.
The deeper indictment of their kamikaze course involves their disregard for popular sentiment and, ultimately, for democratic principle. On what basis do they impose burdens and regulations on absolutely everyone when only a distinct minority supports such a policy? No comparably significant change in US history proceeded with a similar lack of consensus.
The president likes to talk about the “courage” of prior Democratic Congresses that pushed through Social Security over fierce opposition --- but the majority of Republicans in both houses endorsed this 1935 legislation and it passed with nearly three-quarters of Congressional votes. Civil Rights bills of the ‘60’s passed with similarly overwhelming (and bi-partisan support), as did Medicare in 1965 (clearing both House and Senate by a three-to-one margin). In the past, every monumental change in our governmental and economic system began by building broad public support, and then gradually winning Congressional approval. That’s why the Founders made it so difficult to enact the most significant changes of all – amendments to the Constitution, which require two –thirds backing in both houses of Congress, and subsequent approval from a full three-fourths of all state legislatures.
The current health care proposals threaten to change American life for every citizen just as substantially as any Constitutional Amendment and yet could never muster two-thirds votes in either half of Congress, let alone 75% approval in state legislatures. The arrogance to rush ahead in spite of determined opposition (representing a likely majority of the nation at large) demonstrates not courage, but contempt.
The insistence of Obama and his increasingly isolated Congressional allies to press ahead without public endorsement (national sentiment is, at the very best, split on these initiatives) and without the support of even a single Congressional member of the opposition party represents not just disdain for the public at large, but reckless, toxic disregard for the democratic norms that have always nourished and protected this precious Republic.