The Press and Reconciliation

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If Democrats want to pass a healthcare bill, there’s only one way to do it: the House needs to pass the existing Senate bill and then the two sides need to agree to a few limited changes. These changes would be passed through both House and Senate via “reconciliation,” which allows budget-related measures to be approved with a simple majority. Technically, it’s not that hard. But politically, as Bob Somerby points out after watching a CNN report, Democrats start out at a huge disadvantage because the press has basically already adopted Republican talking points to explain how this works:

What the heck is “reconciliation?” So far, we’ve been told that it’s “a controversial parliamentary short-cut”—a “fast-track approach,” a “tactic.” The controversial tactic “would allow Democrats to pass health-care reform without any Republican support.” HOWLER readers may know what that means—but many CNN viewers did not. Who knows? According to what they had just heard, such viewers may have thought that “reconciliation” would let health reform pass by a majority vote among Democrats. More likely, they still didn’t have any real idea how the “tactic” works—although the very first thing they had been told is that it’s “controversial.”

Guess what, kids? That’s loaded language.

The truth, of course, is simpler. The basic healthcare bill has already been passed in the Senate via regular order. The House can pass the Senate bill and President Obama can sign it into law via regular order. Changes to the bill that affect revenues and outlays — i.e., things that affect the budget — can then be tacked onto a budget bill later this year and passed on an up-or-down vote via the budget reconciliation process. Here’s a reconciliation primer:

It was created in 1974 as a way of ensuring that annual budgets could be passed without being filibustered.

It has been used to pass the annual budget in all but seven years since 1980. It’s a routine procedure used by both Republicans and Democrats.

It was used to pass Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut and both of George Bush’s big tax cuts.

It was used to pass welfare reform.

Virtually every healthcare reform of the past three decades, including COBRA, EMTALA, S-CHIP, and others has been passed via reconciliation.

There’s nothing wrong with the media reporting that Republicans oppose the use of reconciliation to amend the healthcare bill. Of course they do. But they owe it to their audience to explain that reconciliation does nothing more than allow a simple majority vote to pass budgetary issues and that it’s been used routinely by both parties for decades. That’s just the simple truth.

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