On Lou Dobbs Tonight, guest host Lisa Sylvester advanced the claim that reconciliation is an "obscure Senate rule" that would be, in Sen. John McCain's words, "a drastic change in the way that the United States Senate does business." In fact, Congress has repeatedly used the budget reconciliation process to enact changes to the nation's health care policy, and Senate Republicans have used or attempted to use reconciliation to pass President Bush's tax cuts, an increase in the Medicare eligibility age, and welfare reform.
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From the August 25 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:
SYLVESTER: The American public today continued to be heard at town hall meetings across the nation. Democrats are planning hundreds of rallies to marshal support for President Obama's proposals. Republicans, too, are listening. Senator John McCain today, he hosted a town hall meeting in Sun City, Arizona, and his constituents there made it very clear how they feel about the president's plan.
McCAIN [video clip]: I am convinced the president is absolutely sincere in his beliefs. But he is -- wait a minute. Wait a minute. He is sincere in his beliefs, we just -- we just happen to disagree. And he is the president of the United States, and let's be respectful.
SYLVESTER: McCain expressed concern that Democrats would use obscure Senate rules to force their health care plan through without a full and open debate.
McCAIN [video clip]: I am unalterably opposed to that. It would be a drastic change in the way that the United States Senate does business, and I hope that if you see something like that coming, you would not allow that to happen.
SYLVESTER: Yeah, that procedure known as reconciliation. The crowd at the senator's meeting was so large that some had to be turned away. They were able to watch the meeting, though, from an overflow room.
Reconciliation is not "obscure" -- Congress has used it several times before
Congressional Research Service reports that Congress used reconciliation process to pass 21 bills between 1981 and 2007. An August 10, 2005, Congressional Research Service (CRS) report lists 19 bills Congress passed that were enacted through reconciliation from FY 1981 to FY 2005 -- 16 of which became law and three of which were vetoed by President Clinton. A separate March 2008 CRS report lists an additional two reconciliation bills passed by Congress since 2005.
Congress previously has used reconciliation to pass health care measures
Congress used reconciliation to pass Medicare Advantage. As part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, enacted through the reconciliation process, Congress -- which was controlled by the Republicans at the time -- created the "Medicare+Choice Program," currently known as Medicare Advantage or Medicare Part C. The program allows seniors to enroll in HMO-type plans rather than the traditional Medicare fee-for-service plan.
Congress used reconciliation to pass COBRA. As stated on the Department of Labor website, as part of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, Congress gave "workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances."
Congress used reconciliation to pass Patient Self-Determination Act. As part of the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1990, Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act, which requires hospitals, nursing homes, HMOs, and other organizations that participate in Medicare or Medicaid to provide information about advance directives and patients' decision-making rights.
Republicans repeatedly attempted to use reconciliation to pass increase in Medicare eligibility age. The version of the Balanced Budget Act of 1995 introduced by then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) using the reconciliation procedure contained a section providing for raising the Medicare eligibility age. As the CRS reported, the provision was stricken from the bill during floor consideration on the basis of a point of order that the provision was "extraneous" to matters appropriate to reconciliation.
The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 -- also introduced through the reconciliation procedure -- also included a provision to raise the eligibility age. Fifty Republicans voted in favor of waiving a point of order against the provision that it was extraneous, allowing the provision to remain in the bill. The final version of the bill signed by Clinton did not contain this provision.
GOP used reconciliation to pass Bush tax cuts, welfare reform
GOP used reconciliation to pass Bush's tax cuts. As Media Matters for America has documented, Republicans used the reconciliation process to pass Bush's 2001 tax cut, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001; Bush's 2003 tax cuts, the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003; and Bush's 2005 tax cuts, the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 2001 tax cuts would "reduce projected total surpluses by approximately $1.35 trillion over the 2001-2011 period"; that the 2003 tax cuts would "reduce projected total surpluses by approximately $1.35 trillion over the 2001-2011 period"; and that the 2005 tax cuts would "reduce federal revenues ... by $69.1 billion over the 2006-2015 period."
Republicans repeatedly voted to use reconciliation to pass components of welfare reform. Congress employed the reconciliation process to pass welfare reform in 1996 as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Senate Republicans previously included welfare reform provisions in the Balanced Budget Act of 1995, which Clinton vetoed. As CRS reports, 46 provisions of the bill were deemed extraneous by the Senate's presiding officer. Fifty-three Republicans voted in favor of a motion to waive the point of order, but the motion -- which requires 60 votes -- failed on a 53-46 vote.
Media have allowed GOP senators to repeatedly attack use of reconciliation
Media have not challenged GOP criticisms of reconciliation process. Media Matters has documented a pattern in which journalists uncritically quote Republican senators criticizing the decision to use reconciliation as overly partisan without noting that the senators they are quoting -- including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) -- voted to allow the use of the budget reconciliation process to pass legislation during the Bush administration, including the tax cuts.