The conventional wisdom around budget reconciliation, the unobstructed process by which the Senate can pass budget-related legislation with 50 votes, is that you only get one per fiscal year – a maximum of two per calendar year. The Senate Democratic majority has already spent their fiscal year 2021 reconciliation project on the $ 1.9 trillion American Redemption Plan, and the idea was that they could use a second, tied to the arrival of fiscal 2022 in next October, in some kind of congestion packed infrastructure, economy of care, health and who-knows-what-what-more bill for all purposes. As they do not have the votes to completely eliminate the obstruction, these two projects would be their two great opportunities to promulgate their legislative agenda.
Last week, however, majority lead senator Chuck Schumer asked Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who advises on the house’s mysterious rules, to examine another section of the budget law that allows for the reconciliation process. Section 304 of the 1974 Budget Law allows the Senate to pass a resolution that “revises” the already approved budget. Schumer asked MacDonough – most recently seen crushing Democrats’ hopes of including a minimum wage increase in the relief bill – if they could use this review process to create another reconciliation bill.
Schumer’s office announced late on Monday that McDonough had agreed and that “a revised budget resolution may contain budget reconciliation instructions.”
What that means in the short term is that, instead of having yet another bill to get around the obstruction this year, Democrats will have at least two if they decide to use them.
Democrats have yet to commit to any legislative strategy on how they want to approve Biden’s infrastructure proposal, his future proposal to boost the “care economy” or whatever is falling at its peak. For now, committees are starting to work on infrastructure proposals to see what could be done in a bipartisan way, something that some centrist and vulnerable Senate Democrats are insisting on giving it a try. We’ll see. But Schumer, according to an aide, wanted to “maximize his options to allow Senate Democrats multiple paths to advance President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda if Senate Republicans try to obstruct or dilute a bipartisan agreement.”
It may be that the Democrats, after giving up on reaching an infrastructure agreement with the Republicans (or just reaching a modest one), decide to split the next two reconciliation projects according to the way Biden is presenting them: one for the traditional “hard” infrastructure, and another for an extension of the improved child tax credit, paid family and sick leave, and anything else that Biden can present.
But infrastructure legislation is a complicated project that will take a while. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw July 4th as when she would like the House to complete the infrastructure project, and the Senate process is, and always will be, more arduous than that of the House. Whatever the Democrats decided to use the “review” of reconciliation for the current fiscal year, it would have to be done by September 30, the end of fiscal year 2021. So they could try to use that vehicle for another priority – reduced eligibility for Medicare, the DREAM Act, prescription drug costs – and reserve the 2022 reconciliation tax bill for infrastructure.
Or maybe they could raise the debt limit somewhere there.
As you wish.
It would be a new precedent in an organ governed by them. The “review” clause has never been used before to squeeze out an extra reconciliation account – and there are still doubts as to how far it can be extended. How many new budget resolutions “reviewing” existing budget resolutions can be approved? Could there be revised infinite budget resolutions generating infinite reconciliation accounts in any fiscal year? Schumer did not ask and MacDonough did not answer. Someone will ask that question eventually.
If this new precedent sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration, welcome the failed United States Senate. As long as the Senate obstruction remains in effect, majorities will continue to test the limits of the reconciliation process, a precious legislative vehicle for which the debate is limited by statute. This new precedent would bring the agency closer to a reality in which the obstruction does not actually exist for items that have a direct budgetary impact – a mandate that senators have chosen to trust a Senate official to judge – but prevents most other legislation from even getting time on the floor. And who is the nut that designed this system? Nobody.
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