The arcane reconciliation rules Democrats are plotting to use in a last ditch bid to ram their unpopular health care bill through the Senate are an obstacle course unsuited to complex policymaking.
This is the dire legislative prognosis, and warning, that former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove offered during a recent briefing for journalists and health care analysts just as lawmakers were preparing for last week’s contentious, seven-hour summit with President Obama who signaled he is ready to pull the reconciliation trigger to blast his way through Republican opposition.
While Democratic leaders, eager to use whatever means are necessary to break the GOP’s blockade, have peddled the end-run process as a fast-track maneuver to muscle the president’s massive $1 trillion bill into law, it is anything but that.
Instead, it will be a long, disjointed brawl over a Rube Goldberg-style government-run health care contraption that would wreak havoc with an industry that accounts for 16 percent of a $15 trillion economy, according to veteran health care analyst Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute that hosted Dove’s parliamentary teach-in.
“This process is not designed to do a lot of policy making and it would be very difficult to achieve a number of things that people want to achieve” in health care reform, said Dove, who was chief parliamentarian for 12 years of his 36-year legislative career before joining the faculty of George Washington University. “This could be a very long, exhausting process.”
Indeed, Senate Republican leaders, who believe that a long drawn-out process could play into their hands, were planning strategy meetings this week to plot how they could politically turn the reconciliation rules against the Democrats through a bulwark of amendments aimed at building upon strong public opposition to Obama’s plan.
GOP strategists said over the weekend that Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina were expected to lead that fight, with Coburn throwing down the gauntlet this weekend in a radio address in response to Obama’s statement urging his party to “get this done” now.
Coburn said that, despite the summit, the president and the Democrats never had any intention of seeking a compromise with the GOP. “Instead, they want to use procedural tricks and backroom deals to ram through a new bill that combines the worst aspects of the bills the Senate and House passed last year,” he said.
The complicated reconciliation rules requiring a simple majority vote were designed, among other things, to overcome road blocks in the difficult budget-making process.
The rules, which have been used in the past on major economic and budgetary bills, give the chief parliamentarian wide authority to rule that non-germane provisions are “incidental” and thus do not belong in the bill. “The incidental test is a very difficult test because it is very subjective. You are trying to judge people’s motives,” said Dove who once ruled out some 300 provisions in a 1995 budget bill.
The Senate of course can vote to overrule the parliamentarian with 60 votes, but the Democrats lost their veto-proof 60 votes with the election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts who proudly proclaimed himself the 41st vote against Obamacare.
Vice President Joseph Biden, who serves as president of the Senate, also has authority to overrule the parliamentarian, Dove said, but “no vice president, frankly, since Nelson Rockefeller in 1975,” has exercised that authority.
Making the reconciliation process even more unwieldy and exhaustive is the rule that senators may offer an unlimited number of amendments which could work to the GOP’s advantage, legislative strategists said.
“The process itself is laborious. Even though only 20 hours of actual Senate floor debate are allowed, there is no limit to the number of amendments that can be offered, possibly dragging the process on for weeks,” Turner told Human Events.
“Republicans will use this opportunity to showcase more of the reasons they don’t like the Democrats’ legislation and will force difficult votes that members facing tough races do not want to take,” Turner said.
But in the end, she added, “The reconciliation process will turn health reform legislation into Swiss cheese, making a bad bill even worse. The process was not designed to make complex policy like health reform. The process itself is fraught with peril because those writing the bills don’t know what provisions will be allowed or cut by the parliamentarian.”
Beyond the Democrats’ maneuver to use reconciliation rules, however, is the awkward procedure under which party leaders hope to produce a bill that Democrats in both chambers can support.
Under the scheme being considered, House Democrats would give final approval to the Senate health care plan approved on Christmas Eve and send it to the president for signing. At the same time, the House Democrats would pass additional but separate provisions to reconcile their objections with that bill that the Senate would presumably pass under reconciliation rules requiring only a 51-vote majority for final passage.
Still, many Democrats are leery of giving final approval to a bill they have deep differences with, a move that they say would require a huge “leap of faith” that the Senate would then accept the second bill with the “fixes” that House Democrats want. “The trust of House members….in the Senate delivering on anything is at an historic low,” Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, told the Washington Post last week. “I think that’s very, very difficult.”
But it isn’t just parliamentary experts, health care reform strategists and doubting House Democrats who think reconciliation is a dangerous way to design the nation’s medical care system. A majority of Americans think so, too.
A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of all Americans say they oppose using reconciliation to get a health care bill through the Senate. When 1,009 adults across the country were asked about the procedure being contemplated by the president and his party, 52 percent said they opposed passing the bill with just 51 votes instead of the 60 votes needed to halt a filibuster. Forty-two percent said they supported reconciliation.
While Democrats overwhelmingly supported reconciliation by a margin of 68 to 24 percent, 86 percent of Republicans opposed it, and, most notably, so did 53 percent of independents who have been fleeing the Democrats in droves.
“The current poll results, reflecting data from most surveys on healthcare reform over the past several months, show that Americans would be more opposed than in favor of [passing the Democrat bill], particularly if passage is based on a reconciliation type procedure designed to avoid a Republican filibuster,” said Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport in an analysis of his findings.
But apparently that seems to be what the White House and Democratic leaders were planning to do all along, despite a long line of polls showing that up to 60 percent of Americans are opposed to the legislation.
Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, one of the architects of the bill, appeared to be speaking for Obama and his party’s leadership just before last week’s summit when he said, “We’ll have that meeting… But far more important, after that meeting, you can either join us or get out of the way.”