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.”