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Congress-ese: Budget Reconciliation...Or How to Avoid a Filibuster

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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March 24, 2010

After a 1 ½ year hiatus, we’re back with more Congress-ese! We hope you’ve missed us.

Today’s fun definition is Budget Reconciliation. You might have heard that term thrown around as the way that the Senate plans to make targeted changes to the health care reform bill that the President signed into law yesterday. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to explain this trick of the congressional trade.

As you may know, it sometimes just takes a simple majority vote to pass a bill in the Senate, because senators come to agreement to end debate and proceed to vote on the bill in question. However, any senator has the right, should he or she so choose, to filibuster a bill and force a cloture vote requiring 60 senators’ support in order to move to the vote on final passage.

Now, it used to be that filibusters were used sparingly and almost exclusively for controversial measures. But, lately, as you’ve likely heard, the partisanship in Washington has gotten so extreme that 60-vote thresholds are required for almost every measure considered on the Senate floor. This is a problem, especially now that the Democrats are down to 59 votes and neither side is excelling at playing well with others.

Enter Budget Reconciliation. A budget reconciliation bill is not subject to filibuster, so it can pass, after 20 hours of debate, with only 51 votes. Sounds like a magic bullet, right?

Not so fast. There can only be one budget reconciliation bill per fiscal year (that’s Oct. 1 — Sept. 30 in federal government world), and instructions for budget reconciliation (a.k.a. what issues can be included in the bill) must be laid out in that year’s Budget Resolution, which is often set by the House and Senate many months before.

Moreover, provisions included in a budget reconciliation bill are subject to the Byrd Rule, named for its author, Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.). The Byrd Rule requires that all provisions in a budget reconciliation bill have a budgetary impact. (Who woulda thunk?) That’s why we can’t fix health care reform’s stigmatizing and burdensome “two check” requirement for individuals purchasing insurance plans that cover abortion through budget reconciliation. Grr . . . But, it also means that the other side can’t make that language worse.

And, the Byrd Rule does yield some particularly fun terms. For example, all provisions in a budget reconciliation bill are subject to a Byrd Bath, making sure that they do, in fact, have budgetary implications. Provisions challenged under the Byrd Rule must achieve a 60-vote threshold in order to remain in the bill. Those that are removed under the rule are called Byrd Droppings. (I hope you’re as happy as I am that Sen. Byrd has a name that leads to such punny terms!)

Oh, and there’s one more caveat — budget reconciliation bills allow for unlimited amendments, which can certainly gum up the process beyond the 20 hours allotted for debate.

So, how has budget reconciliation been used? While budget reconciliation is currently in the news as the vehicle to make changes to health care reform, both parties have successfully used budget reconciliation to pass everything from welfare reform to the Children’s Health Insurance Program to COBRA health coverage for the unemployed to President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. In short, it is just another tool in Congress’s belt.

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