Abuse of Power
'An undemocratic disservice to our people and to the Senate's institutional role.'
A string of electoral defeats and the great unpopularity of ObamaCare can't stop Democrats from their self-appointed rendezvous with liberal destiny—ramming a bill through Congress on a narrow partisan vote. What we are about to witness is an extraordinary abuse of traditional Senate rules to pass a bill merely because they think it's good for the rest of us, and because they fear their chance to build a European welfare state may never come again.
The vehicle is "reconciliation," a parliamentary process that fast-tracks budget measures and was created in 1974 as a deficit-reduction tool. Limited to 20 hours of debate, reconciliation bills need a mere 50 votes in the Senate, with the Vice President as tie-breaker, thus circumventing the filibuster. Both Democrats and Republicans have frequently used reconciliation on budget bills, so Democrats are now claiming that using it to pass ObamaCare is no big deal.
Yet this shortcut has never been used for anything approaching the enormity of a national health-care entitlement. Democrats are only resorting to it now because their plan is in so much political trouble—within their own party, and even more among the general public—and because they've failed to make their case through persuasion.
"They know that this will take courage," Nancy Pelosi said in an interview over the weekend, speaking of the Members she'll try to strong-arm. "It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare," the Speaker continued. "But the American people need it, why are we here? We're not here just to self-perpetuate our service in Congress."
Leave aside the irony of invoking "the American people" on behalf of a bill that consistently has been 10 to 15 points underwater in every poll since the fall, and is getting more unpopular by the day,
particularly among independents. As Maine Republican Olympia Snowe pointed out in a speech last December, Social Security passed when Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House, yet 64% of Senate Republicans and 79% of the House GOP voted for it. More than half of the Senate Republican caucus voted for Medicare in 1965.
Historically, major social legislation has always been bipartisan, because it reflects a durable political consensus.
Reconciliation is the last mathematical gasp for ObamaCare because Democrats can't sell their policy to Senator Snowe, any other Republican, or even dozens of Democrats. This raw exercise of political power is of a piece with the copious corruption and bribery—such as the Cornhusker kickbacks and special tax benefits for union members—that liberals had to use to get even this far.
Democrats often point to welfare reform in 1996 as a reconciliation precedent, yet that bill passed the Senate with 78 votes, including Joe Biden and half of the Democratic caucus. The children's health insurance program in 1997 was steered through Congress with reconciliation, but it, too, was built on strong (if misguided) bipartisan support. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 that created Schip passed 85-15, including 43 Republicans. Even President Bush's 2001 tax cuts, another case in reconciliation point, were endorsed by 12 Senate Democrats.
The only precedent within historical shouting distance is Ronald Reagan's 1981 budget, which was controversial because it reshaped dozens of programs. But the Senate wasn't the problem—it ultimately passed the budget 80 to 14. The real dogfight was in the Democratically controlled House, where majority rules have always obtained, yet Reagan convinced 29 Democrats to buck Speaker Tip O'Neill. Reconciliation, in other words, wasn't used to subvert the 60-vote Senate threshold, but rather to grease the way for deficit reduction.
The process was designed for items that cut spending or affect tax revenue, to meet targets in the annual budget resolution. Democrats want to convert it into a jerry-rigged amendment process: That is, reconciliation wouldn't actually be used to pass ObamaCare per se. Instead, it would be used only to muscle through substantive changes to the bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve, without which 216 House Democrats won't vote for it. So Democrats would be writing amendments to current law that isn't in fact law at all—and can't become law without those amendments.
President Clinton preferred to use reconciliation to pass HillaryCare in the 1990s, but he was dissuaded by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who argued that it would be an abuse of the process. Mr. Byrd, author of a four-volume history of Senate rules and procedures, told the Washington Post last March that "The misuse of the arcane process of reconciliation—a process intended for deficit reduction—to enact substantive policy changes is an undemocratic disservice to our people and to the Senate's institutional role," specifically citing health reform and cap and trade.
Regrets, they've got a few. Yet these Democratic Sinatras will still do it their way. President Obama is expected to endorse reconciliation in remarks this morning.
The goal is to permanently expand the American entitlement state with a vast apparatus of subsidies and regulations while the political window is still (barely) open, regardless of the consequences or the overwhelming popular condemnation. As Mr. Obama fatalistically said after his health summit, if voters don't like it, "then that's what elections are for."
In other words, he's volunteering Democrats in Congress to march into the fixed bayonets so he can claim an LBJ-level legacy like the Great Society that will be nearly impossible to repeal. This would be an unprecedented act of partisan arrogance that would further mark Democrats as the party of liberal extremism. If they think political passions are bitter now, wait until they pass ObamaCare.