If President Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress are to achieve anything, they will likely need an obscure but powerful procedural tool.
This tool is called "Budget Adjustment" and will definitely be heard a lot in the coming weeks. This complicated Senate process is the means by which key Democratic priorities could actually pass through Congress and reach President Joe Biden's desk.
Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate. To pass bills, they have to grapple with unusual Senate rules like the filibuster, a procedural requirement that requires Senate bills to get 60 votes in order to vote for a vote. The filibuster would force the Democrats to get support from at least 10 Republicans to pass most of the laws.
Debate is already underway over whether Democrats should just get rid of the filibuster altogether and pass what they want by a simple majority. However, without such a big step, they have a budget vote.
You can pass a reconciliation bill with just 50 votes. However, reconciliation also comes with certain conditions that limit what actions can go through that particular process, and this makes legislation much more complicated.
Here's what you need to know:
1) What is “budget comparison” and why should I care?
For law to become law, it has to pass the United States Senate.
Democrats control the Senate, House of Representatives, and White House, which in theory gives them the power to legislate. While bills can be passed out of the house by a simple majority, almost all Senate bills are subject to the "filibuster," a Senate rule (but not a law) that requires legislation to get 60 votes to get a final vote.
Almost all invoices, but not those submitted through the process known as budget reconciliation. As part of this special procedure, a bill can be put to a vote and adopted with a simple majority.
The Democratic Senate majority is as thin as possible: 50:50, and Vice President Kamala Harris is available to break a tie. For most of the bills, they'll need support from at least 10 Republicans. However, with the help of a budget reconciliation calculation, they can pass on any desired invoice within the confines of the reconciliation process.
Biden and Senators from both parties have a good game of bipartisanism in the post-Trump era and post-Capitol-era storm. The partisan policy, however, has the option of taking over any legislative debate.
Democrats may find that in order to pass a Covid-19 relief bill or other major tax, health care and environmental priorities they need to work through a bill using budget balancing. In return for the privilege of passing legislation with “only” 51 votes, draft bills are subject to certain rules for budget voting.
2) What can the Senate adopt with budget balancing?
Lots of things – as long as they affect federal spending and income. After all, it is called budget adjustment. Reconciliation was introduced under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which was promoted by lawmakers concerned about the growing federal deficit.
The process begins with a Congressional resolution instructing the House and Senate committees to draft laws. The budget resolution sets the first parameter for what can happen through the budget vote: the final bill must reduce or increase the federal deficit by no less or no more than the amount specified in the resolution.
For example, the 2017 budget resolution passed by Senate Republicans to set up a reconciliation for their tax plan called for the bill to add $ 1.5 trillion to the deficit over a 10-year period – but no more . This became the goal when Republicans were deciding which taxes to cut and which to increase.
The provisions contained in the reconciliation must then somehow change federal spending or federal income. Tax hikes and cuts, expanding health insurance subsidies, and spending on new infrastructure projects are some of the obvious, much-discussed ideas that could be included in a reconciliation bill.
3) What can't happen to a budget vote?
The reconciliation was first used in the 1980s to approve spending cuts in the Reagan era, but the Senators quickly began to use the reconciliation for actions unrelated to its original purpose. A law of reconciliation was used to reduce the number of directors on the Federal Communications Commission.
In the eyes of Senate institutionalists like Robert Byrd of West Virginia, these were abuses of the reconciliation process. So Byrd proposed and the Senate codified restrictions on what can be passed by budget vote to ensure that the process was actually being used on matters affecting the federal budget. These restrictions are now colloquially known as the Byrd's rule.
As a rule, reconciliation bills cannot change social security. They are not expected to increase the federal deficit after 10 years. They must affect federal spending or income – and their impact on spending or income must be “more than random” for their political impact.
In other words, the main purpose of the provisions in a law of reconciliation must be to influence the federal deficit. These budgetary effects cannot simply be a by-product of trying to achieve some other political goal. To borrow an example that has come up a lot in recent health care debates, a change in insurance policy may not conform to the Byrd rule. While these changes would certainly affect federal spending (the government spends money to subsidize health insurance so changes in its costs would change federal spending), their main political purpose would be to affect what type of health insurance people get.
4) Who decides what can be included in a budget comparison?
Unelected bureaucrats. Kidding – kind of. There are two key arbitrators in the reconciliation process: the budget office of Congress and the Senate MP.
The CBO forecasts how legislation, including reconciliation bills, will affect the budget. Usually, these projections have been the guide to whether a bill will achieve its reconciliation goals. If CBO states that your bill is $ 1.5 trillion and the budget resolution to set up the vote says the bill should not cost more than $ 1 trillion, then you must remove $ 500 billion from the bill .
This doesn't have to be an ironic rule, however: when the Senate Republicans used the 2017 budget vote to pass the tax bill, there was speculation that they could use their own estimates if the CBOs didn't go along with their wishes. (They didn't have to take such drastic action in the end, though they still attacked the Senate's impartial experts, saying the estimates underestimated how much their tax burden would boost the economy.)
And the CBO can be bypassed in other ways. In their 2017 bill, Senate Republicans phased out some tax breaks for individuals so their bill would not add to the federal deficit outside of the 10-year budget window. At the time, however, no one really believed that Congress would put these tax cuts under – i.e. H. Raise taxes on people – when that deadline comes. It was a gimmick, plain and simple.
In addition to the CBO, the Senate MP plays an important role in determining which provisions can be included in a law of reconciliation. The current MP is Elizabeth MacDonough, who has held the position since 2012 and is the first woman on the job.
There is usually a recurring gray area with these calls: is the household impact of a policy "random" or not? If so, it must be struck off the bill according to Byrd's rule. Traditionally, the parliamentarian makes the final decision after hearing arguments from both sides on the provisions in question. (It's called "Byrd Bath".)
5) Does the Senate have to listen to the parliamentarian?
That is the subject of the debate. Traditionally, the parliamentarian's decision was actually final. But that is a norm, not a divine command. The Republicans once fired a MP whose decisions they disagreed with. (The story in a nutshell: In 2001, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was reportedly upset that MP Robert Dove prevented Republicans from passing more than one reconciliation bill a year, so Lott ousted Dove.)
Some activists and even some lawmakers have also pointed out that the Vice President who heads the Senate has ultimate authority over what is allowed in the budget vote. The parliamentarian only offers the chairman technical guidance. But the Vice President hasn't overruled a MP since 1975 when Nelson Rockefeller pushed through a change to the Senate's filibuster rules against the MP's Council.
Some Democratic priorities appear to be in the Byrd Rule gray area – such as a $ 15 minimum wage and DC statehood, to name two – and Senate Democrats could face pressure to override the MP if it stands in the way of achieving these goals.
But Democrats, more reluctant to dramatically change the Senate process, may object to this plan. You would argue that this sets a precedent that would interrupt the budget vote process forever. Any future Senate could simply bypass the parliamentarian and remove the guard rails that are supposed to regulate the process.
6) Why can't the Senate use a budget vote for every bill?
There is a technical answer and a "real" answer.
Technically, this is because a budget vote bill begins with a budget resolution and Congress passes a budget resolution for a specific fiscal year.
The budget resolution can theoretically produce three separate reconciliation bills: one for taxes, one for spending, and one for the federal debt limit. In practice, however, most of the reconciliation bills have combined taxes and expenses into a single legal act. This is why in the past the Senate has typically only passed a single law on budget voting in any given fiscal year.
A side note: sometimes they have leeway. In early 2017, Republicans passed a resolution for Fiscal 2017, which was halfway up, and another for Fiscal 2018, which gave them two shots for a quick reconciliation. (They used the first bill to try to repeal the ACA and the second for their tax legislation.) The Center on Budgetary and Political Priorities suggests that Democrats could possibly use the same trick this year.
Regardless, the real problem is that some senators are very nervous about getting rid of the filibuster – that 60-vote requirement to put most of the bills up for a final Senate vote – and a reconciliation allows them to do that to avoid. You can pass some guidelines by simple majority without opening the door to all bills only being subject to a 50 vote threshold.
7) That sounds complicated. Wouldn't it be easier for Democrats to just get rid of the Filibuster?
The problem is political. Eliminating the filibuster requires 50 votes. Democratic senators from conservative states do not necessarily want to be asked to cast the tough votes again and again. The filibuster offers them protection by mandating that a bill must at least receive bipartisan support before it comes to a vote.
Senators who support keeping the filibuster would also say that it also helps encourage reflection and compromise that are supposed to be the Senate's main virtues.
In practice, the filibuster has largely served as an obstructive tool for the minority. Because of this, the current Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has insisted on keeping him on while negotiating a power-sharing deal with Chuck Schumer, the new Senate majority leader. But the Democrats are holding back to make such a promise. Even Red Democrats like Montana's Jon Tester have said they don't want to forego the leverage of potentially eliminating the Filibuster later if Republicans prove unwilling to go along with the new majority.
Whether the Senate Democrats would actually be ready to end the filibuster for legislation is one of the big questions that will arise over the next two years. The threat could bring the Republicans to the negotiating table.
But whatever they decide on the bigger filibuster issue, they'll get a chance through reconciliation to pass a major bill without a Republican vote.
8) What are some previous examples of household reconciliation invoices?
President Bill Clinton's Social Welfare Reform Act, like George W. Bush's tax cuts, was passed through reconciliation. Since 1980, 21 reconciliations have become law, most of them for taxes and expenses.
The reconciliation was critical to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The House and Senate, both under Democratic control in 2009, had passed separate health care reform laws but still failed to find a final compromise when Republicans won a special Massachusetts Senate election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. Democrats lost a majority of 60 votes and suddenly it seemed impossible to complete health care reform through regular order.
To get her plan on President Obama's desk, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed the Senate version of Health Care Reform (ACA), and Congress then used a reconciliation bill to make some technical changes to the plan that have otherwise been made in the EU would be conference negotiations between the House and the Senate.
After Donald Trump's election, Republicans attempted to repeal and replace Obamacare with reconciliation, but could not find 50 votes for their proposals. They managed to run their tax accounts through the process in the next fiscal year.
9) Will the Democrats now apply reconciliation? And if so, what to do?
We do not know it! Senate Democrats had started writing a new Covid-19 relief plan that would pass the reconciliation pattern, but President Biden is telling them to at least try to reach a deal that would win Republican support.
Still, they may find that the GOP is unwilling to play ball. If the Democrats fail to reach an agreement with the Republicans on Covid-19 aid, they will first use the reconciliation to pass a pandemic-targeted bill.
"The goal of both House Democrats and the government is to get this done as soon as possible, whatever we need to do," Rep. John Yarmuth, chairman of the House Budgets Committee, told reporters. "We haven't made a decision to use reconciliation yet, but we are ready to act very quickly if it looks like we can't do otherwise."
Then the question would be whether the Democrats are trying to pass a second reconciliation law after the 2017 Republican game book. Other candidates could include a package of tax reforms and health regulations. They might try to get an infrastructure plan through reconciliation if they can't win Republican support on the matter.
This will be one of the most important decisions that the new democratic majority will make. If they don't decide to get rid of the filibuster, a budget vote would be their best chance to meet some of their big legislative goals.
But they have to navigate through these Byzantine rules and norms to achieve this.
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