The Big Lie about 'Reconciliation'

The GOP's health-care hypocrisy

For those who feared that Barack Obama did not have any Lyndon Johnson in him, the president's determination to press ahead and get health-care reform done in the face of Republican intransigence came as something of a relief.

Obama's critics have regularly accused him of not being as tough or wily or forceful as LBJ was in pushing through civil rights and the social programs of his Great Society. Obama seemed willing to let Congress go its own way and was so anxious to look bipartisan that he wouldn't even take his own side in arguments with Republicans.

Those days are over. On Wednesday, the president made clear what he wants in a health-care bill, and he urged Congress to pass it by the most expeditious means available.

He was also clear on what bipartisanship should mean -- and what it can't mean. Democrats, who happen to be in the majority, have already added Republican ideas to their proposals. Obama said he was open to four more that came up during the health-care summit. What he's unwilling to do, and rightly, is to give the minority veto power over a bill that has deliberately and painfully worked its way through the regular legislative process.

Republicans, however, don't want to talk much about the substance of health care. They want to discuss process, turn "reconciliation" into a four-letter word, and maintain that Democrats are just "ramming through" a health bill.

It is all, I am sorry to say, one big lie -- or, if you're sensitive, an astonishing exercise in hypocrisy. 

All of the Republican claims were helpfully gathered in one place by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post. Right off, the piece was wrong on a core fact. Hatch accused the Democrats of trying to, yes, "ram through the Senate a multitrillion-dollar health-care bill." 

No. The health-care bill passed the Senate last December with sixty votes under the normal process. The only thing that would pass under a simple majority vote would be a series of amendments that fit comfortably under the "reconciliation" rules established to deal with money issues. Near the very end of his article, Hatch concedes that reconciliation would be used for "only parts" of the bill. But then why didn't he say that in the first place?

Hatch grandly cites "America's Founders" as wanting the Senate to be about "deliberation." But the Founders said nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster, let alone "reconciliation." Judging from what they put in the actual document, the Founders would be appalled at the idea that every major bill should need the votes of three-fifths of the Senate to pass.

Hatch quotes Sens. Robert Byrd and Kent Conrad, both Democrats, as opposing the use of reconciliation on health care. What he doesn't say is that Byrd's comment from a year ago was about passing the entire bill under reconciliation, which no one is proposing to do. As for Conrad, he made clear to the Washington Post's Ezra Klein this week that it's perfectly appropriate to use reconciliation "to improve or perfect the package," which is exactly what Obama is suggesting.

Hatch said that reconciliation should not be used for "substantive legislation" unless the legislation has "significant bipartisan support." But surely the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which were passed under reconciliation and increased the deficit by $1.7 trillion during his presidency, were "substantive legislation." The 2003 dividends tax cut could muster only fifty votes. Vice President Dick Cheney had to break the tie. Talk about "ramming through." 

The underlying "principle" here seems to be that it's fine to pass tax cuts for the wealthy on narrow votes but an outrage to use reconciliation to help middle-income and poor people get health insurance.

I'm disappointed in Hatch, co-sponsor of two of my favorite bills in recent years. One created the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The other, signed last year by Obama, broadly expanded service opportunities. Hatch worked on both with his dear friend, the late Edward M. Kennedy, after whom the service bill was named.

It was Kennedy, you'll recall, who insisted that health care was "a fundamental right and not a privilege." That's why it's not just legitimate to use reconciliation to complete the work on health reform. It would be immoral to do otherwise and thereby let a phony argument about process get in the way of health coverage for 30 million Americans.

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).