tv Policy Experts Discuss Budget Reconciliation CSPAN July 7, 2021 12:05am-12:54am EDT
in march, democrats used the reconciliation process as covid-19 relief without any republican support. now they are considering similar action on a potential infrastructure bill. from the brookings institution, this runs 45 minutes. n congress. the brookings institution is hosting the discussion. >> >> my book is co-authored with steve smith and is called
politics or principal? . we are going to spend about 30 minutes answering some common questions about reconciliation. for those of you who have submitted questions in advance, thank you. we will cover a lot of the ground that you are curious about in our conversation. then, we will turn to more audience questions. if you are viewing live, you can submit questions by emailing, or via twitter. let's go. molly, why don't you start us off. what exactly is a reconciliation bill? maybe help us understand what isn't a reconciliation bill? molly: thank you. budget reconciliation is an optional part of the budget process.
that makes changes to one type of federal spending known as mandatory spending, to revenue , or to the debt limit. mandatory spending is handled outside of the appropriations process. often the spending is determined by criteria, something like medicare. each budget resolution, the overall blueprint that kicks off the congressional budget process, each one of those can produce up to three reconciliation bills. one affects only revenue. one that affects only spending, and one that affects the debt limit. in practice, it is pretty hard to do major policy changes without touching revenue and spending together. early, we are talking about each
budget resolution doing two reconciliation bills and practice. as we have learned, you can unlock additional additional attempts by revising a budget resolution. this was the subject of some headlines about a month ago. this will be a common theme for our conversation today. timing is a big factor. even if the rules of the process and the interpretation of the rules allow you to do something, the constraints of the calendar and the schedule can be as restrictive on how the reconciliation process unfolds. we will talk about this in a little bit in more detail. the big powerful thing about the reconciliation process that it allows for these bills to move through the senate without the possibility of a filibuster. instead of needing 60 votes, you can do that with a simple majority.
that has to do with the fact that under the rules set forth in the congressional budget act, there is a limitation on how long a reconciliation bill can be debated. once the time for debate is over, that's it. the senate moves to a vote. that has the effect of preventing the possibility of filibuster. reconciliation bills can change existing programs, they can create new programs, and eliminate programs. overall, the process is limited by various rules. the bird rule is the most notable of these. there are other rules about what kind of amendments are permitted during senate consideration. they divide the rules about subject matter. reconciliation bills have to be budgetary in nature and it
affects things that it can't do things that are merely incidental. then, the size of the reconciliation bill is also restricted. for example, reconciliation bills must be fully paid for beyond a certain time covered. usually, that is 10 years and it has the effect of things like the bush tax cuts, they contain provisions that expire. that is one of the constraints put on the rules by the process. that is a little bit of an overview. sarah, can you tell us about why this exists? why we have this complicated but important legislative process?
sarah: why does it exist? it's a great example of rules created for one purpose. at a particular moment in a political time, then as conditions change, politicians and their strategic party leaders find new niches for that established tool. usually, they are niches that might not have been envisioned when the particular lawmakers who wrote the rule or the law probably envisioned how it might be used in the future. it's not that unusual a thing in congress that the rules last longer than the politicians who created them. it creates opportunities for complicated procedures that probably didn't look so complicated when they wrote them. in the case of reconciliation, it comes from the 1974 budget act.
keep in mind in the 1970's, there was a large democratic majority, ideologically diverse democratic and republican parties, there was an endowment of programs like medicare and medicaid. spending that was outside of the annual appropriations process. on top of growing budgets and social spending, we had very tough institution conflict between congress and richard nixon. it was about the war in southeast asia but also about federal spending and congress's power to determine how the executives should spend from the treasury. those led up to the budget act
of 1974. reconciliation played a special role there and the point was that there would be to budget racial listens -- two budget resolutions. one, that there would be a blueprint of spending and debt limits for the coming fiscal year. they go through the spending and appropriations process. and the annual spending. then, there is supposed to be a second resolution with binding limits. then, to get the two resolutions to match up, last-minute changes in law to put spending in line with the priority of the budget resolution.
-- to make spending and the budget resolution in line with the priority of the budget resolution. reconciliation was the tuneup to make the first and second budget resolutions lineup. as lawmakers quickly figured out, the second resolution, the put the structures [indiscernible] i am not a doctor but i always thought of the second resolution was like the appendix, it turns out you didn't need. so now there's the resolution but we have the option of doing reconciliation. we have at least two dozen financial laws since the first one in 1980. it changed a little bit over time.
a 10 year budget window. it originally was a one year budget window, then a five year. nothing stops them at 10. it could be 25 if a future party makes the window larger to create more opportunities for spending more money or cutting more taxes. the key part is what you alluded to. you can't filibuster the reconciliation bills. why not? i thought people loved the filibuster, especially senators. what is that all about? molly: here, it's important to
come back to the process that you originally laid out as it was originally designed in the 74 act. you were talking about how under that act, there would be a first budget resolution in the spring, a second budget resolution in the fall and then a period just before the start of a fiscal year to bring it to a close before october 1. so the possible need to be speedy, to go quickly is a big part of what motivated the desire to put a limitation on how long a reconciliation bill could be debated in the senate. again, the idea was that congress might need to move fast and that limiting how long you could talk about the reconciliation bill would help make that possible. congress realized quickly that even with the debate limitations, a very small action
window was probably too small. that is probably why, as you said we eventually get the , reconciliation process moving from the second budget resolution to the first. then, eventually the first budget resolution gets excised like an appendix. this reconciliation is not the only example of this kind of debate limitation in the senate. we have other instances where congress decides that pieces of legislation should be protected from filibuster. generally, it's either because congress wants to avoid blame, deflect responsibility to some other actor and have that proposal that someone else comes up with moved through in a productive way or because
congress wants to enhance visibility to oversee the executive branch. reconciliation is probably the most consequential of these debate limitations in the senate. again, it is not the only one. as we think about use of reconciliation in the contemporary congress, mulling over the degree to which having reconciliation as this filibuster-protected action for moving certain types of legislation has potentially helped keep the filibuster around, because reconciliation exists as a consistent outlet for certain types of policy changes. you can say, ok, we will do that through reconciliation, but then that cannot be filibustered, but then we will keep the filibuster around for legislation more generally. i brought up the idea here that over time, reconciliation has become this tool of the majority
party in the senate to pursue its goals. has that always been the case? was reconciliation ever bipartisan? how did that change, and do we think the reconciliation benefits more -- one party more than the other? sarah: i think it's tempting to tell a story that reconciliation has become more partisan over the decade as the two parties have become polarized or competitive. when it is more about parties than it is about team play in congress. there is some truth to that. we see a handful of bipartisan votes on reconciliation in the 1980's, in a time when the parties were not so at odds with one another.
now, we have not a lot of examples but we see the trump tax cuts done reconciliation. no democrats voted for. or joe biden's relief bill done by reconciliation. no republicans voted for it. my sense in part on the issue of partisan manipulation of reconciliation, reconciliation from the get-go was the reagan administration kicking it up a notch. early in the 1980's, they are already using it as a way to pursue republican policy agenda. they are using it to pare back spending favored by democrats. medicare programs, food stamps. the rules of reconciliation
enabled republicans who got control of the senate to set the agenda for the cuts and entitlements that they couldn't get through the regular legislative process. i do not want to think it was all bipartisan and now it is newly partisan. i think the evolution here is that the parties have found a way to exploit reconciliation for top priorities regardless of the impact on federal deficits. they have both done it in their own favored way. republicans favored tax cuts largely and can use reconciliation easily to do that at the cost of deficit. also, democrats want to use it for social welfare directed programs. it is no longer a budget cutting tool. 2017, republican said the tax cuts would pay for themselves.
vice versa from the democrats in pandemic aid, they justified it is justified the cost as necessary, a way to get us out of the pandemic. both parties have found a way to fine-tune it and hone it. parties have become more at odds with each other so it definitely looks more partisan, because there are members who are going to cross the aisle to use it for the other party. there is a constraint on the majority party. several constraints. the byrd rule. molly, why don't you tell us a little bit about the byrd rule,
what it is, why we have it. this last part, why is it so complicated? [laughter] molly: the byrd rule limits the content of reconciliation bills. it was added in 1985 and modified in 1986 and 1987. it was made permanent in 1990. it was named for senator robert byrd. in the mid-1980's he had two refunds he offered for needing to place limitations on what could be in a reconciliation bill. the first was the congress was trying, the one neat trick that was reconciliation, trying to
add things to reconciliation bills that didn't serve the goal of reducing the deficit. adding these additional non-deficit reducing provisions to the bill, kept adding drama and controversy to the process, which was making it harder for congress to make progress on reducing the deficit. it was one of the ways that the process was originally used to achieve deficit reduction. it was basically by telling lots of congressional committees in those instructions you mentioned earlier that they have to report out legislations that would reduce the deficit by some prescribed amount, then lots of committees would be set to work on this goal. they would all report back their proposals for achieving that
amount of deficit reduction than -- reduction and then congress would take one vote on the whole package. the idea was that everyone should have some role in achieving this goal. everyone should be required to share some of the pain necessary to reduce the federal deficit. if that was the central goal of the process, that was how it was designed to work. adding more things that were not intended to reduce the deficit to the process was making it harder to achieve that goal. the other justification he gave was that by making reconciliation goals bigger and bigger without the threat of a filibuster, that was using the expedited process was undermining the deliberate -- deliberative nature of the senate. robert byrd offers the rule with these restrictions on what can be in a reconciliation bill
speaking both to the content, the most significant piece is the part where provisions of the reconciliation bill have to be budgetary in nature and their budgetary effects can't be merely incidental to the goal of the provision. why is it so complicated? i think a couple of reasons. one has to do with the fact that the rule is not self enforcing. like all senate rules. the only way that we have footprints of a byrd rule violation in the senate's record comes from something actually being challenged on the floor as a potential byrd rule violation. and then there being a vote either to waive the byrd rule or on the ruling of the chair on
whether or not something violate the. -- violates it. because there are lots of potential byrd rule violations that we don't see, and there might be provisions in a reconciliation bill that violate the byrd rule, but if more than 60 senators, which is what it would take to waive the byrd rule and keep a provision that is in violation of it in the bill, if there is a super majority of senators that support a particular provision, maybe we never know that might have been a violation. it's that uncertainty around it, the light footprints that the bird can leave is a reason why it's complicated. another is that we don't have a statutory definition of what "merely incidental" means.
there's a real "you know it when you see it" element to the byrd rule. there's a lot about the way it has been interpreted over time that doesn't come from underlying statutory language. another reason why it has gotten so complicated is something you were talking about earlier which is that i think there is more pressure on the reconciliation process now than there was in the 1980's. you're absolutely right that in the 80's, the procedures were used to achieve goals that were important to the senate majority party. they were not at that point the only way a majority party might be able to try to achieve some of its goals, particularly if those goals have bipartisan support. now, for a lot of legislative items, reconciliation becomes
the only way that a majority party in the senate feels like a -- like it can accomplish most of the things it wants to do. as the process is asked to bear more and more of those policy agenda items, that increases the complexity of the process. the last thing i will say is that the consequences of the byrd rule for the structure of the reconciliation bill. because the rule is applied to individual provisions in a bill, it can be the case that if one provision is deemed to be a violation of the byrd rule, that if you pull on the one string, it has a potential to unwind the rest of the bill either policy wise -- i think if we look back
at the republicans' failed attempt to repeal the aca, there were some pieces of how they had constructed a bill that was going to accomplish this goal of repealing the aca that were deemed to be a violation of the rules. when you pull one brick out of the wall, it makes it harder from a policy perspective sustain the rest of the wall. or, politically as well and we saw this potential issue in the spring with the rescue plan will -- the plan -- rescue plan when we had debate over whether or not that bill would include an increase to the federal minimum wage. that ended up coming out of the bill, because the parliamentarian advised that it was in violation of the byrd rule. that had political consequences or potential political consequences for the coalition needed to support the legislation. i mentioned the parliamentarian.
can you talk about that role? why has the job become controversial and what role does the parliamentarian play? sarah: just as a framework, decision-making bodies have parliamentarians. the senate has one, the house has one, my congregation has one. in any decision-making body, the set of rules or precedents or interpretations of the rules how they have been applied in the past. then, more informal practices.
parliamentarians give advice. they provide information to senators or to leaders. they advise more formally or provide an officer on how the parliamentarian would interpret or apply the rules like the byrd rule or other provisions in the budget back to say what do the rules require or suggest or allow. sometimes, the advice is black and white. sometimes it can be countered. like you could say, can reconciliation be used to ban funding for planned parenthood? but other times it is gray.
i have been shocked at how many people think they know what the parliamentarian's role is, but they understand it to think the parliamentarian is telling senators to do what they can and what they cannot. she is not, she is advising. the chair follows advice. you don't want the chair to make rulings based on his or her own preferences. what is the parliamentarian doing here in terms of reconciliation? off the floor, before reconciliation, she can provide advice and hear from competing teams about why they think a provision fits in a
reconciliation bill or not. she gives advice. my sense is, because they don't want to leave the footprint for whatever reason because they might disagree within the party, the parliamentarians advice tends to carry the day, even though it is just informal. as things become more partisan and given that 50-50 divide in the senate, meaning there was no wiggle room at all, there was a conservative status quo bias that the majority of senators and leaders seemed not willing or do not have the votes to push the envelope to stretch reconciliation. i see we have questions coming in.
let's see. i will start here, a question from npr. who decides how many times reconciliation can be used and what it may include? molly: i think your answer to the question about the parliamentarian speaks to this well. i will underline a couple of things you said. there is a difference between what the parliamentarian advises and what the senate is willing to do. the parliamentarian could say that something is a potential violation of the byrd rule, and the drafters of the bill could say ok, we hear you, but we are going to ignore your advice, keep it in the bill.
there could be a challenge to that provision on the floor, and it is possible for a simple majority of senators to -- in the current senate, 50 democrats plus the tie-breaking vote of the vice president to disregard the advice of the parliamentarian. but i think it is clear or in many situations clear that there is a difference between what a majority of the senate wants to do policy-wise and what they are willing to do risk-wise, stretching the process, to make that happen. there is an interest senators have in preserving the equilibrium of the parliamentarian as a trusted, nonpartisan source of advice.
as you were saying at the start of your answer, this is not the only thing the senate parliamentarian does. she does not exist only to advise the senate on violations of the byrd rule. there are lots of situations where it is in the shared interest of senators to have a parliamentary referee they all are willing to listen to. as we think about these questions, what could really happen, what are the parliamentary edge cases, there is a difference in what some of the senators might support on policy grounds. sarah: a warning that some of the questions coming in are excellent, but they could be reconciliation 301, and we are live. does the debt limit increase
survive? molly: reconciliation could touch the debt limit. exactly how it makes changes to the debt limit is more complicated. the process could definitely be used to raise the debt ceiling. it probably could not be used to eliminate the debt ceiling entirely, to do away with the concept of the debt limit, and the question of suspending the debt limit, in my understanding, is a little more complicated. i don't know if you have more thoughts on that. what is important to note with this as well as many other hypotheticals about reconciliation is what could happen and what is likely to happen.
it remains unclear -- i don't know if you suspect differently -- whether democrats will decide that reconciliation is the way they want to deal with the debt limit. it is clear it needs to be dealt with. exactly when is unclear. how it fits into the overall timing is again an open question. sarah: there may be financial accounting reasons why a party would prefer suspending the debt limit rather than increasing it to a certain level. my sense is that suspending is more politically palatable because then you are not trying to get a target number to be used against your party.
but that could push democrats to look for an alternative mechanism, perhaps with appropriations. [indiscernible] molly: this would also be a good moment to give a little perspective on where we are right now and what seems to be the plan of the biden administration and democrats in congress for using reconciliation, how many bills we are talking about. i just mentioned it is not clear -- it clear that it could be used to deal with the debt limit. sarah: with the caveat that there will be people watching today who are working on these issues, from the outside, it appears there are a couple of balls in the air at the same time.
i am not a juggler, but it seems the first route is for the bipartisan infrastructure bill to continue through the unconventional usual, irregular regular order, such as it were. to produce a plan to come to the senate and then to be in theory passed and sent to the house, where it would seem it is in the power of the speaker to hold it for a while and the party to set the agenda. at the same time, there is a parallel track of reconciliation that would tackle the biden
part of the family plan and what else might be in the jobs plan with more social or soft infrastructure. [indiscernible] a resolution could come up in the senate that includes reconciliation so that once the house agrees to the resolution, work can get underway. and then, the democrats would have both the bipartisan and partisan package, as it were. to be passed and signed at once. that seems to be the model democrats are working toward with the fall but there are also
possible questions about reconciliation as the all back and then the question is how to get reconciliation instructions to committees to add the bipartisan bill into one giant gigantic reconciliation bill? i think that's the fallback plan. there are political limits, there are limits of how much they would be willing to put into either form of a reconciliation, and time is ticking. we have a few reconciliation bills in even-numbered election years, but i don't think that is the hope, so there is probably a plan to get it done before then.
molly: you brought up the question of instruction to committees. we have a question about that. how specific can reconciliation instructions be? generally, the instructions do not tell committees which programs they should make changes in to achieve the prescribed amount of either. deficit spending, revenue increases, they don't generally contain programmatic changes in direction. that said, there is a behind the scenes process that goes on where, in order to decide how
big instruction should be, you have to have a sense of what is likely to be achieved through those instructions before you decide on the number. there are only so many levers they can pull. you have a sense of what those levers might be? but generally, it does not appear in the instructions themselves. that's what's happening behind the scenes right now, what are the changes likely, what building blocks are likely to make up those changes? sarah: what is the reconciled -- this is reconciliation 401. you and i kind of talked through
before. on what basis does the senate parliamentarian rule that if you want more than one reconciliation bill year it must be voted by more than one member out of a committee? i have a view of what one of these additional resolutions looks like. molly: in the congressional budget act which sets up the possibility of using reconciliation, that law provides an opportunity for budget reconciliation. if you read over speeches, committee reports, and that sort of thing from pieces of the
budget act, the underlying idea -- and again, it's an era of multiple budget resolutions, but conditions might be fluid. all goal things might happen. to me there might be a crisis in you economy where congress might why need the ability to go back and make changes to the budget blueprint. that is why when writing the budget act congress provided for the possibility of revising a budget resolution. no again, because reconciliation what has become this key to unlock a filibuster, a process that is more important in contemporary congress than it used to be, we have seen already congressional majorities try to figure out ways to use it
in bigger ways or in this case more often. there so there is a question about whether congress could go back and having taken the budget resolution that they passed in two february to unlock the reconciliation process that reader reconciliation process that created the american rescue plan, which congress passed along party lines, could they go back to that resolution and revise it and unlock a second reconciliation process for the your we the fiscal year under -- reconciliation process for part of the fiscal year we are currently in that runs through the end of september?
and if they could under this part of the budget act, that was the question the parliamentarian opined on. we have a couple of minutes left if you want to take on the part about discharge, and then we will wrap up. sarah: the simplest version is that in the congressional budget act when applied to the first budget resolution in normal circumstances, it reflects a discharge because there is a date by which the resolution has to be adopted. it sounds like the parliamentarian is saying there is no other discharge on a revised or amended budget resolution, so it would have to be voted out. we are in a 50-50 senate. the parliamentarian does police whether committees conform to reporting rules, it sounds like, given the 50-50 senate, given that republicans could have a
quorum to prevent democrats from voting to discharge it, it would not be possible without republican support to get it out of committee. there are a couple of question marks in my head about why they can't discharge it and then vote on the floor, but the law, the provision, the senate makeup, and advice from the parliamentarian, it seems quite complicated, but there are a lot of moving parts here. [indiscernible] i think it is a circumstance here that's interesting. molly: we have laid all this out, but this is another case where the constraints aren't just what the law says or what the parliamentarian's
interpretation of the law says and where the senate is willing to push it, it is also the calendar. so there are some real questions about given the amount of floor time that handling a reconciliation bill takes and to go back to the two moving trains, pitching the trains together, the degree to which politically, it is challenging to say some parts of your coalition we are going to put some things in one reconciliation bill and save some things for another reconciliation bill that may or may not come to pass, all of that, which is constraints outside of the rules placed on the process. sarah: it's a tough battle all around for this particular majority. on that note about
reconciliation, thank you all so much for joining us and we look forward to seeing you again. [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] announcer: c-span's washington journal. every day we take your calls about the policy issues that impact you. wednesday morning, we will talk about the u.s.-mexico, canada agreement. and then the biden administration retooling strategies to boost vaccination rate. watch washington journal live on wednesday mornings and join the discussions. >> boris johnson testifies
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