By Jake Lestock
With Republicans maintaining their majorities in both houses of Congress and now controlling the White House, can they get their agenda passed and to the president's desk?
With only 52 Senate seats, Republicans are far from having a supermajority. It raises the question, is there a way around one of the minority party's few defensive weapons—the filibuster?
The answer is yes and it’s called reconciliation and it only requires a simple majority vote in both chambers.
The budget reconciliation process, created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, was designed to allow for expedited consideration of certain tax, spending, and debt limit legislation. The process begins with the passage of a budget resolution in both chambers of Congress, which include reconciliation instructions. These reconciliation instructions choose the relevant congressional committee or committees that will have jurisdiction over the legislation. These instructions direct certain committees to craft legislative language increasing or decreasing federal revenues, spending levels, or the debt ceiling.
The decisions are left to the discretion of each committee to implement policy changes to achieve the budgetary targets set by reconciliation directives. If more than one committee in either the House or Senate proposes legislative changes, then these recommendations are combined into an omnibus bill by the Budget Committee for expedited consideration in the full House or Senate.
This is where the reconciliation procedures come in handy. While general Senate rules allow virtually unlimited debate and a number of obstacles to stop the passage of general legislation, reconciliation bills can be passed relatively quickly and with only a simple majority.
That’s because reconciliation legislation limits Senate debate on the bill to 20 hours and therefore, is not subject to the filibuster. Procedures do not limit the number of amendments that can be offered during the Senate’s initial consideration of the bill. As a result, once the 20-hour limit has expired, remaining amendments are considered with little or no debate — a process known as a “vote-a-rama.”
While this tool can be used on a number of issues, it is important to point out that you can’t use reconciliation for just anything. First of all, budget reconciliation can only be brought up a maximum of three times per year per budget resolution. Also, Congress has banned reconciliation from being used to increase deficits. Finally, the largest restriction on budget reconciliation is the Byrd Rule, which was named after its chief sponsor, the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.). This allows senators to block provisions of reconciliation bills that are extraneous to reconciliation’s basic purpose of implementing budget changes. This deters committees receiving reconciliation directives to add a wide range of unrelated provisions that could lead to more controversy.
Once the committees weave through these obstacles and finish the “vote-a-rama,” a final package is considered by both chambers of Congress and if passed, the bill is sent to the president.
How often has reconciliation been used? Since 1980, lawmakers have enacted 20 budget reconciliation bills to steer controversial budgetary policies through the Senate, including President Bill Clinton's 1994 deficit reduction and tax package and President George W. Bush's major tax cuts.
A reconciliation bill was also quickly passed in March of 2010 to make a series of important budgetary changes to the Affordable Care Act. Ironically, this same reconciliation procedure will likely be the path Congress takes solely for the purpose of repealing the ACA, or Obamacare.
The process is already well under way with the House passing a budget Friday that paves the way for a repeal. No matter what happens, it’s safe to say that reconciliation will most likely play a major role in efforts to pass transformative legislation this year.
More information on the federal budget process can be found here.
Jake Lestock is a state-federal affairs polcy associate in NCSL's Washington D.C. office.