Earlier this afternoon, my Gaggle colleague Katie Connolly noted, quite correctly, that ""has never been used for this kind of major systemic reform."
But to get a sense of exactly how much McConnell is overreacting, it's important to consider two other facts as well. First, reconciliation has not only been used to pass major health-care initiatives; it's actually been used to pass major initiatives of all sorts, including the Republicans' favorite "major systemic reform" of the last 20 years: the 1996 welfare-reform bill. And, second, it hasn't even been Democrats using reconciliation most of the time. It's been Republicans.
Over at Slate (which, like NEWSWEEK, is owned by The Washington Post Company), Timothy Noah has a useful rundown of some of the biggest bills to pass through reconciliation in recent years. Take it away, Tim:
Reconciliation has been used to raise taxes. It's been used to cuttaxes. It was used (by a Republican-controlled Senate) to create COBRA,the program that compels employers to allow departing employees to buyinto their health plan for 18 months. COBRA stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 (italics mine), signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Reconciliation was used several times to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor during the 1990s and the early aughts. It was used (again, by a Republican-controlled Senate) to create in 1997 the beneficial Children's Health Insurance Program and the wasteful privatization experiment known as Medicare Advantage. It's been used repeatedly to set federal policy regarding higher education loans and grants.
Of course, at this point, McConnell could still argue that none of measures listed above qualify as "major systemic reforms." Which is where welfare comes in. Back in 1996, Republicans controlled the Senate. But with only 53 votes, they couldn't break a potential filibuster. Seeking to pass welfare reform before the November elections further polarized Washington and halted legislative action, the GOP leadership, which included presidential candidate Bob Dole, decided to pursue the swiftest, safest path: reconciliation. As Noah puts it, "lowering the threshold of victory from 60 ayes to 51 would make the measure harder to sink." The bill—official name: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—sailed through without a hitch, let alone a procedural conniption fit from the minority party. Ten years later, Newt Gingrich called it a "profound
As I noted earlier, this was neither the first nor the last time Republicans relied on reconciliation to enact their agenda. According to political scientist Joshua Tucker (via Ezra Klein), there were 19 reconciliation bills between 1981 and 2005, "11of which were signed by Republican presidents, five of which weresigned by Democratic presidents, three of which were vetoed byDemocratic presidents, and none of which were vetoed by Republicanpresidents."
"By my admittedly simple classification scheme," Tuckerconcludes, "this would suggest that 14 of the 19 times reconciliationwas used between FY1981–FY2005, it was used to advance Republicaninterests."
So despite what Mitch McConnell might claim, reconciliation has, in fact, been used to pass "major systemic reform"—particularly by Republicans like him. Which is all just to say: you might hate the health-care bill, but passing it through reconciliation doesn't make it illegitimate. Unless, of course, you consider welfare-reform illegitimate. Or COBRA. Or tax cuts.
Didn't think so.