Budget Reconciliation: No longer for budgets, and the more bills the merrier, whether or not they have anything to do with one another

The Senate Parliamentarian ruled this week that the Democrats can pass as many bills as they want, contravening 50 years of precedent and further eroding the basics of the English language.  Welcome to a world where infrastructure is no longer infrastructure, budgets are no longer budgets, and one bill per year could be an infinity of them.

You might not have heard much about it, but by far the biggest news by far this week is that the Senate Parliamentarian has completely upended close to 50-years of precedent on the usage of budget reconciliation, allowing the Senate to pass an unlimited number of spending bills with 50 votes rather than the normal 60 required for cloture.  This is an earth-shaking development that has garnered very little attention in the mainstream media for whatever reason, enabling President Joe Biden and his fellow spending addicted Democrats to keep writing pork-laden bills with a practically blank check.

First, a little background.  The Senate Parliamentarian is an obscure position many people have never heard of.  Normally, whoever occupies the role has practically zero impact on American lives.  According to the Senate website, “The parliamentarian is the Senate’s advisor on the interpretation of its rules and precedents. For many years, the Senate relied solely upon the expertise of its members and clerks for guidance in procedural issues. As legislative activity became more complex in the 20th century, senators turned to long-time journal clerk Charles Watkins, whose vast knowledge of parliamentary procedure proved invaluable. Finally, in 1935, the Senate created the Office of the Parliamentarian, and gave Watkins the official title of Senate Parliamentarian. To date, only five individuals have held that title…”

The current Senate Parliamentarian is Elizabeth MacDonough.  She has been in office since 2012 and has avoided any controversy until now.  That changed this week, however, when she ruled that Section 304 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 does indeed allow for more than one reconciliation bill per year, contrary to nearly 50 years of precedent on the topic.  Ms. MacDonough made this ruling because Section 304 supposedly allows that “the two Houses may adopt a concurrent resolution on the budget which revises or reaffirms the concurrent resolution on the budget for such fiscal year most recently agreed to.”

No, don’t ask me what that means either.  I believe she is trying to say that the Senate can revise a budget previously passed under reconciliation, meaning that if a budget was passed and needed to be amended that would be achievable under reconciliation.  This seems a reasonable position; if for example there was an error in the budget and a department wasn’t funded, or if a department was overfunded, or if additional funds were required in a certain area.  One can understand why, in this limited case, a bill that had previously passed with 51 votes should only require another 51 votes to amend.

That’s certainly not what Chuck Schumer and company are trying to do, however.  They previously passed a whopping $1.9 trillion spending bill, ostensibly for coronavirus relief, under the reconciliation process and now they want to pass an even bigger $2 trillion infrastructure package, only half of which actually goes to what we used to all agree on as infrastructure.  

These are completely separate bills, not amendments or concurrent resolutions, and therefore don’t meet any of the definitions of “concurrent,” “revises,” or “reaffirms” as they are commonly understood, any more than $400 million for healthcare meets the definition of infrastructure.

In fact, it’s a stretch to pass either of them under the budget reconciliation process in the first place.  As implied by the name, the budget reconciliation process is supposed to be used for the budget.  According to the liberal website, Vox, the primary purpose of the bill “must affect federal spending or revenue — and their effect on spending or revenue must be ‘more than incidental’ to their policy impact.”  According to Joe Biden, however, both the infrastructure and the coronavirus relief bill were designed to achieve a policy impact.  In other words, both bills were both sold on the idea that they’re primary purpose was policy, not the budget.

The subject of whether reconciliation can be used more than once per year has also come up in the past.  In fact, Republican Senator Trent Lott fired the parliamentarian, Robert Dove, in 2001 when he refused to allow more than one reconciliation bill in a single year.  The way President Biden and his fellow Democrats are attempting to use the reconciliation process is completely unprecedented.  While pushing the limits of what constitutes a “budget” bill has been a troubling trend in recent years, nothing like this has ever been done before, ever.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides information on how he process has been used in the past.  “Policymakers used reconciliation to enact major spending cuts during President Reagan’s first year in office, several deficit-reduction packages during the 1980s and 1990s, welfare reform in 1996, and the large Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. More recently, reconciliation was used in 2010 to amend the Affordable Care Act and modify the federal student loan program, and in 2017 to enact large tax cuts. Republican majorities also twice attempted to use the reconciliation process to repeal key elements of the Affordable Care Act; President Obama vetoed the first attempt, in 2016, and the second attempt, in 2017, failed to pass in the Senate.”

Do you see anything in there about $4 trillion in additional spending?  I don’t either.

Just 10 years ago, when things seemed a lot more normal, the use of reconciliation to pass Obamacare was a mini-scandal.  Even in that case, however, the bill had already passed the Senate with 60 votes and they were amending it, not passing it anew.  Now, we’re further down the rabbit hole where completely fresh bills can be passed, repeatedly, with no limit, all we need to do is trust the Senate to say it’s a revision, because you know politicians never, ever stretch the truth or, gasp, lie.

Amazingly, even liberal news sites like Slate.com seem a bit confused about this ruling.  Jim Newell starts by noting that, “The conventional wisdom around budget reconciliation, the filibuster-free process through which the Senate can pass budget-related legislation with 50 votes, is that you only get one per fiscal year—for a maximum of two per calendar year.”  He then asks some obvious questions, “The ‘revision’ clause has never been used before to squeeze out an extra reconciliation bill—and there are still questions about how far it can be extended. How many new budget resolutions ‘revising’ existing budget resolutions can be passed? Could there be infinity revised budget resolutions spawning infinity reconciliation bills within any given fiscal year? Schumer didn’t ask, and MacDonough didn’t answer. Someone will ask that question eventually.”

Yes, eventually we will need to know if the budget reconciliation process allows for infinite budgets.  Instead of interpreting the law the way we’ve always interpreted it, they’ll let us know at some point in the future if common sense or the common usage of language still prevails.  I’m not criticizing Mr. Newell:  He’s pointing out the obvious problems here, though I like his usage of conventional wisdom as if this was some science experiment we’re only now discovering, instead of the meaning of a bill passed and agreed to by all for 50 years.

Needless to say, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is thrilled with the news.  His office issued a statement via a spokesman, “The Parliamentarian has advised that a revised budget resolution may contain budget reconciliation instructions. This confirms the Leader’s interpretation of the Budget Act and allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues.  While no decisions have been made on a legislative path forward using Section 304 and some parameters still need to be worked out, the Parliamentarian’s opinion is an important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed.”

There’s also an incredibly rich irony in hearing this from the Democrats.  For years, they’ve complained endless about the erosion of precious democratic norms and how the country was becoming increasingly less democratic.  Since Biden has been in office, however, they have jettisoned any and all pretense of the very democratic norms that have governed the behavior of the Senate for decades, if not centuries.

Even worse than assaulting democratic norms, they and the Senate Parliamentarian now are in  a battle with the English language itself.  Hence, coronavirus relief is no longer coronavirus relief, infrastructure is no longer infrastructure, budgets are no longer budgets, and one bill per year could be an infinity of them.

Where this ends, nobody knows, but I can tell you two things:  First, it won’t be pretty, you cannot stuff anything you want in a bill and call it a rainbow.  Second, the Democrats and the liberals who support them will be completely reversing course the instant a Republican gets elected President.  Immediately, one bill will be one bill and budgets will be budgets, or — you guessed it — democracy itself will be at stake.

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