Myths and Falsehoods on budget reconciliation

››› ››› TOM ALLISON

In recent weeks, conservative media have promoted a number of myths and falsehoods about the possible use of the budget reconciliation process to finalize passage of health care reform.

Myth: Reconciliation is the nuclear option

Myth: Reconciliation undermines democracy

Myth: Reconciliation in general is "arcane," abnormal, and rarely used

Myth: Reconciliation is unprecedented for health care

Myth: Using reconciliation will bypass debate affecting "1/6 of our economy"

Myth: Democrats propose passing health care with only 51 votes

Myth: Obama broke a promise not to pass health care with a 50 + 1 vote

Myth: Reconciliation is the nuclear option

On Fox News' Special Report, host Bret Baier said that the Senate process of reconciliation "was once called the nuclear option" and aired clips of what he claimed were Democrats criticizing the nuclear option "when Republicans were using it." Fox News hosts and guests have repeatedly pushed the falsehood that the term "nuclear option" refers to the budget reconciliation process. The Fox Nation and Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren, Dick Morris, Bret Baier, and Bill Sammon have all falsely compared reconciliation to the "nuclear option."

Fact: "Nuclear option" was coined by GOP to describe a process to change Senate filibuster rules. The term "nuclear option" was coined by former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), one of the leading advocates of a 2005 proposal to change the Senate rules on filibusters for judicial nominations. After Republican strategists deemed the term a political liability, Republican senators began to attribute it to Democrats. As Media Matters for America noted, at the time, many in the news media followed suit, repeating the Republicans' false attribution of the term to the Democrats.

Myth: Reconciliation undermines democracy

The Washington Post published a March 2 op-ed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in which he claimed: "This use of reconciliation to jam through this legislation, against the will of the American people, would be unprecedented in scope. And the havoc wrought would threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, degrade our system of government and damage the prospects of bipartisanship."

Fact: Reconciliation requires majority vote. The U.S. House Committee on Rules defines the budget reconciliation process as requiring a majority of both houses for passage. From the Rules Committee:

Once a reconciliation bill is passed in the House and Senate, members of each body meet to work out their differences. A majority of the conferees on each panel must agree on a single version of the bill before it can be brought back to the full House and Senate for a vote on final passage. Approval of the conference agreement on the reconciliation legislation must be by a majority vote of both Houses.

Myth: Reconciliation in general is "arcane," abnormal, and rarely used

In a National Review Online column titled "Unprecedented," the Heritage Foundation's Michael Franc referred to reconciliation as "an arcane budgetary procedure." In a February 23 editorial, The Washington Examiner accused Democrats of "running a Washington con game" in considering the use of reconciliation to pass health reform, asserting that the process is "an arcane legislative magic act." Additionally, in a February 23 article reporting that centrist Democrats were weighing the implications of using reconciliation to pass health care reform, Politico claimed that Republicans may be able to convince voters that the procedure "is an end-run around the normal legislative process."

Fact: Reconciliation is part of congressional budget process. The budget reconciliation process is defined by the U.S. House Committee on Rules as "part of the congressional budget process... utilized when Congress issues directives to legislate policy changes in mandatory spending (entitlements) or revenue programs (tax laws) to achieve the goals in spending and revenue contemplated by the budget resolution."

Republicans repeatedly used reconciliation to pass Bush's agenda. Republicans used the budget reconciliation process to pass President Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts as well as the 2005 "Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act." The Senate also used the procedure to pass a bill containing a provision that would have permitted oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The final version of that bill that Bush signed did not contain the provision on drilling.)

Myth: Reconciliation is unprecedented for health care

In a February 25 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bill Frist claimed: "Using the budget reconciliation procedure to pass health-care reform would be unprecedented because Congress has never used it to adopt major, substantive policy change." In his February 25 Washington Post column, George Will suggested Democrats were "misusing" reconciliation for trying to pass health care legislation. Will wrote: "The summit's predictable failure will be a pretext for trying to ram health legislation through the Senate by misusing 'reconciliation,' which prevents filibusters."

Fact: Reconciliation has repeatedly been used to reform health care. On February 24, NPR noted that many "major changes to health care laws" were passed via reconciliation. Additionally, during a February 24 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition, correspondent Julie Rovner quoted George Washington University health policy professor Sara Rosenbaum saying: "In fact, the way in which virtually all of health reform, with very, very limited exceptions, has happened over the past 30 years has been the reconciliation process."

Congress used reconciliation to pass Medicare Advantage and SCHIP. 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. The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), was also passed through reconciliation as part of the Balanced Budget Act. It provides federal matching funds to expand health coverage to children in low-income families who are not eligible for Medicaid.

Congress used reconciliation to pass COBRA. 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.

Myth: Using reconciliation will bypass debate affecting "1/6 of our economy"

During the February 25 edition of Hannity (accessed via the Nexis database), Fox News contributor Sarah Palin suggested that congressional Democrats plan to "cram through via reconciliation this scheme, this government growth takeover of too many aspects of our health care." She went on to warn about "the risk is this one-sixth of our economy being so controlled and 1/6 of our society being so controlled by government with this takeover of health care." Similarly, Politico published a February 4 op-ed by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) warning that "Democrats may attempt to use reconciliation to short-circuit every senator's right and responsibility to fully debate a measure that will affect one-sixth of our economy." Also, CNN political analyst Gloria Borger asked during the March 12 edition of The Situation Room (accessed via the Nexis database): "[S]hould you pass something that affects one-sixth of the American economy with just a majority vote?"

Fact: Dems say they plan to use reconciliation only to tweak aspects of bills already passed by House and Senate. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein reported, congressional Democrats are planning to pass "the 11 pages of modifications that President Obama proposed to reconcile the House and Senate bills with each other." From Klein's March 1 blog post:

Second, Democrats are not proposing to create the health-care reform bill in reconciliation. Rather, they're using the process for a much more limited purpose: passing the 11 pages of modifications that President Obama proposed to reconcile the House and Senate bills with each other. This is not a particularly ambitious use of the reconciliation process, and it's certainly not unprecedented. Republicans are arguing otherwise, of course, but the record belies their rhetoric.

The Hill: Reid says Dems "would likely use the budget reconciliation process to pass a series of fixes to the first healthcare bill passed by the Senate." The Hill reported in a February 20 article:

Democrats will finish their health reform efforts within the next two months by using a majority-vote maneuver in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.

"Reid said that congressional Democrats would likely opt for a procedural tactic in the Senate allowing the upper chamber to make final changes to its healthcare bill with only a simple majority of senators, instead of the 60 it takes to normally end a filibuster.

"I've had many conversations this week with the president, his chief of staff, and Speaker Pelosi," Reid said during an appearance Friday evening on "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" in Nevada. "And we're really trying to move forward on this."

The majority leader said that while Democrats have a number of options, they would likely use the budget reconciliation process to pass a series of fixes to the first healthcare bill passed by the Senate in November. These changes are needed to secure votes for passage of that original Senate bill in the House. "We'll do a relatively small bill to take care of what we've already done," Reid said, affirming that Democrats would use the reconciliation process. "We're going to have that done in the next 60 days."

Myth: Democrats propose passing health care with only 51 votes

During the February 25 edition of Fox News' Special Report (accessed via the Nexis database), correspondent Carl Cameron reported that "Republicans demanded Democrats abandon any plans to drive health care through the Senate with only 51 votes under the rarely used legislative maneuver known as budget reconciliation, instead of the normal 60 votes needed to advance major bills."

Fact: Senate already passed health care bill with 60 votes. On December 23, the Senate passed a cloture motion on H.R. 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with 60 votes. On December 24, the Senate passed the bill with 60 votes.

Myth: Obama broke a promise not to pass health care with a 50 + 1 vote

Numerous right-wing media figures have promoted video of Obama discussing the difficulty of governing with "50 plus one" votes on legislation to assert that Obama has broken a promise not to pass health care using reconciliation. For instance, during the March 3 edition of his radio show, Glenn Beck said: "New audio for you from Barack Obama saying that we cannot, cannot pass it with a simple majority vote. Health care has to be supermajority, has to be done that way. You can't just slip it by the American people, which they are now saying they're going to do. Yet another broken promise from Barack Obama." Similarly, Jim Hoft posted the video at his Gateway Pundit site and wrote: "But, of course, like everything else Obama promised, this statement came with an expiration date. Today Obama will announce that Democrats will force their unpopular nationalized health care bill through Congress using a simple majority to ram it through."

Fact: Obama didn't "promise" not to pass health care with 50 + 1 votes. In fact, in the video promoted by conservative media figures, Obama said it would be more difficult to govern without broad support, not that he promised not to use reconciliation to pass health care reform. The video shows several clips of Obama on the campaign trail in 2006 and 2007 discussing how he expected to pass health care reform. For example, in a September 2007 speech, Obama says of health care reform, "This is an area where we're going to have to have a 60 percent majority in the Senate and the House in order to actually get a bill to my desk. We're going to have to have a majority to get a bill to my desk that is not just a 50-plus-1 majority." In another clip, Obama discusses how he wanted to campaign in a way that brought more than a "50-plus-1" majority because "you can't govern" after such a victory and predicts that "you can't deliver on health care. We're not going to pass universal health care with a 50-plus-1 strategy." In a 2006 speech, Obama says, "If we want to transform the government, though, that requires a sizable majority." At no point does he "promise" not to use reconciliation in health care reform.

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