Fair. Balanced. American.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The rules for reconciliation

Fuzzy, for better or for worse.
The Byrd rule states that legislation is unfit for reconciliation if it "produce[s] changes in outlays or revenue which are merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision." I asked Jim Horney, a budget expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, how you define "merely incidental." And what, exactly, is a "provision"?

He sighed. A provision, he said, is "not defined anywhere. It goes well below a title or section of a bill and even below a paragraph. But exactly what it is nobody knows." And the Senate rules offer no more clarity on the definition of "merely incidental." Asked if anyone had developed an accepted meaning, Horney seemed almost apologetic. "No," he said. "Absolutely not."

The matter is not simply academic: The Byrd rule allows senators to challenge the acceptability of any provision (undefined) of a reconciliation bill based on whether or not its effect on government revenues is "merely incidental" (undefined). Thus, if you enter reconciliation with a health-reform bill, it's not clear what's left after each and every provision -- however that is defined -- is challenged and a certain number of them are deleted altogether: the tax portions, certainly. And the government subsidies. But is regulating insurers "merely incidental" to government revenues? How about reforming hospital delivery systems? How about incentives for preventive treatment? Or the construction of a public plan? An individual mandate?

It's hard to say. The ultimate decision is left up to the Senate parliamentarian, whose rulings are unpredictable. Under George W. Bush, Republicans managed to ram tax cuts, oil drilling, trade authority, and much else through reconciliation. But they were as often disappointed: The GOP leaders fired two successive Senate parliamentarians whose Byrd rule rulings angered them.

Taken as a whole, the uncertainty of the reconciliation process transforms it into a game of chicken: If Republicans refuse to cooperate with health reform and force Democrats to resort to reconciliation, no one knows what will emerge out of the other end. Republicans might have no input, but Democrats will be at the mercy of an obscure bureaucrat's interpretation of an undefined Senate rule. It's the legislative equivalent of deciding a bill on penalty kicks.

1 comment :

omen said...

so many excuses to defend weakness.