Well, it looks like Congress is going to attempt to enact the Senate’s health care bill using the reconciliation process. President Obama certainly suggested as much in Thursday’s Health Care Summit, downplaying the significance of such a move and suggesting it may be necessary in order to “move forward.”
First, he said to Senator McCain:
You know, this issue of reconciliation has been brought up. Again, I think the American people aren’t always all that interested in procedures inside the Senate. I do think that they want a vote on how we’re going to move this forward. And, you know, I think most Americans think that a majority vote makes sense, but I also think that this is an issue that could be bridged if we can arrive at some agreement on ways to move forward.
I interpret that as, “Agree with us, or we’ll pursue this using reconciliation. Americans won’t mind.” That also was the thrust of the President’s closing remarks, where he said:
[T]he question that I’m going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks’ time or six weeks’ time we could actually resolve something? And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and make some decisions, and then that’s what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about — about the vision for the country and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?
This is most unfortunate. Reconciliation — the process by which budget-related bills can be approved without threat of a filibuster (and thus without winning the support of at least 60 Senators) — moves the Senate away from its constitutional role as a moderating, consensus-building check on the other two entities that must approve legislation, the House of Representatives and the President. While the House and the President are designed to respond to majority impulses, the Senate is explicitly designed not to work that way; otherwise, California, with its 38 million people, wouldn’t have the same voting power as Wyoming, with its population of 540,000. If the Senate transforms itself into what is effectively a second House of Representatives for this piece of non-budget legislation (which, somewhat ironically, is actually opposed by a majority of Americans) then what’s to stop it from doing so on any future bill? The Senate will no longer be the Senate.
But don’t just take my word for it. Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, who defined the narrow contours of the reconciliation process in the so-called “Byrd Rule,” adamantly insists that the process is inappropriate for sweeping social legislation like the pending health care reform bill. On April 2, 2009, he wrote the following to his Senate colleagues:
I oppose using the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform and climate change legislation. Such a proposal would violate the intent and spirit of the budget process, and do serious injury to the Constitutional role of the Senate.
As one of the authors of the reconciliation process, I can tell you that the ironclad parliamentary procedures it authorizes were never intended for this purpose. Reconciliation was intended to adjust revenue and spending levels in order to reduce deficits. It was not designed to cut taxes. It was not designed to create a new climate and energy regime, and certainly not to restructure the entire health care system.
Just last week, Senator Byrd reiterated his position in another “Dear Colleague” letter. In that letter, he insisted that any attempt to use reconciliation to enact health care reform would be “grossly misguided.”
Senator Byrd isn’t the only Democrat who recognizes the importance of maintaining the Senate’s supramajority rule for important social legislation. Friday afternoon, I spent several hours reading through the Congressional Record from May 10, 2005 to May 25, 2005, a period during which the then-Republican majority leadership in the Senate was threatening to eliminate the supramajority requirement for approving judicial nominees. A number of Democratic senators — including Senators Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Durbin, Feingold, Feinstein, Harkin, Kohl, Lautenberg, Leahy, Murray, Nelson, Reid, and Schumer — spoke eloquently and passionately about the Senate’s crucial and constitutionally prescribed role as a non-majoritarian body. Their characterization of the Senate’s special role was spot on.
Here’s some of what they had to say (emphasis added, of course):
SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER, May 10, 2005:
It is the Senate where the Founding Fathers established a repository of checks and balances. It is not like the House of Representatives where the majority leader or the Speaker can snap his fingers and get what he wants. Here we work many times by unanimous consent where you need all 100 Senators to go along. In some instances, we work where 67 votes are needed, in some with 60, and in most with 51. But the reason we don’t always work by majority rule is very simple. On important issues, the Founding Fathers wanted — and they were correct in my judgment — that the slimmest majority should not always govern. When it comes to vital issues, that is what they wanted.
The Senate is not a majoritarian body. My good friend from Utah spoke. He represents about two million people in Utah. I represent 19 million in New York State. We have the same vote. You could have 51 votes for a judge on this floor that represents 21 percent of the American people. So the bottom line is very simple. This has not always been a 50.1 to 49.9 body. It has been a body that has had to work by its rules and by the Founding Fathers’ intent. Even when you are in the majority, you have to reach out and meet not all, not most, but some of the concerns of the minority.
SENATOR HARRY REID, May 18, 2005:
For further analysis, let’s look at Robert Caro. He is a noted historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, and he said this at a meeting I attended. He spoke about the history of the filibuster. He made a point about its legacy that was important. He noted that when legislation is supported by the majority of Americans, it eventually overcomes a filibuster’s delay, as a public protest far outweighs any Senator’s appetite to filibuster.
But when legislation only has the support of the minority, the filibuster slows the legislation-prevents a Senator from ramming it through, and gives the American people enough time to join the opposition. Mr. President, the right to extended debate is never more important than when one party controls Congress and the White House. In these cases, the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government. …
For 200 years, we have had the right to extended debate. It is not some ” procedural gimmick.” It is within the vision of the Founding Fathers of this country. They did it; we didn’t do it. They established a government so that no one person and no single party could have total control.
Some in this Chamber want to throw out 214 years of Senate history in the quest for absolute power. They want to do away with Mr. Smith, as depicted in that great movie, being able to come to Washington. They want to do away with the filibuster. They think they are wiser than our Founding Fathers. I doubt that is true.
SENATOR CHRIS DODD, May 20, 2005:
One of the reasons the extended debate rule is so important is because it forces us to sit down and negotiate with one another, not because we want to but because we have to. I have helped pass many pieces of legislation in my 24 years here, both as a majority and minority Member of this institution. I have never helped pass a single bill worth talking about that didn’t have a Republican as a lead cosponsor. I don’t know of a single piece of legislation here that didn’t have a Republican and a Democrat in the lead. We need to sit down and work with each other. The rules of this institution have required that. That is why we exist. Why have a bicameral legislative body, two Chambers? What were the Framers thinking about 218 years ago? They understood the possibility of a tyranny of the majority. And yet, they fully endorsed the idea that in a democratic process, there ought to be a legislative body where the majority would rule.
So the House of Representatives was created to guarantee the rights of the majority would prevail. But they also understood there were dangers inherent in that, and that there ought to be as part of that legislative process another institution that would serve as a cooling environment for the passions of the day. So the Framers … sat down and said: There is a danger if we don’t adopt a separate institution as part of the legislative branch where the rights of the minority will also prevail, where you must listen to the other side in a democracy, pay attention to the other side.
SENATOR JOE BIDEN, May 23, 2005:
At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it is about compromise and moderation. That is why the Founders put unlimited debate in. When you have to-and I have never conducted a filibuster-but if I did, the purpose would be that you have to deal with me as one Senator. It does not mean I get my way. It means you may have to compromise. You may have to see my side of the argument. That is what it is about, engendering compromise and moderation.
Ladies and gentlemen, the nuclear option extinguishes the power of Independents and moderates in this Senate. That is it. They are done. Moderates are important only if you need to get 60 votes to satisfy cloture. They are much less important if you need only 50 votes. I understand the frustration of our Republican colleagues. I have been here 32 years, most of the time in the majority. Whenever you are in the majority, it is frustrating to see the other side block a bill or a nominee you support. I have walked in your shoes, and I get it. …
I say to my friends on the Republican side: You may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever. I pray God when the Democrats take back control, we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing. But I am afraid you will teach my new colleagues the wrong lessons.
Much, much, much more below the fold. Please read it — it’s important and, well, a little fun! Continue Reading…