If congressional Democrats manage to pass health care reform, they're likely to do so by passing the Senate bill, as written, and then making some changes through the budget reconciliation process. And if the Democrats proceed that way, Republicans are likely to object that such use of the reconciliation process is an illegitimate, unprecedented perversion of the legislative process.

Fortunately, we have the historical record by which to judge that statement. And, even more fortunately, we have the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to remind us of that, as they do in a new briefing:

Some critics have charged that using reconciliation to enact a major change in policy, such as health reform, would be unprecedented and would represent a gross misuse of the process. A review of the past use of reconciliation demonstrates, however, that this charge is incorrect:

  • Congress has employed reconciliation many times to make major policy shifts. These include sweeping welfare reform enacted in 1996, massive tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and creation or expansion of several health coverage programs. Using reconciliation to help enact health reform would be consistent with past congressional practice, as Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have explained.
  • The sharp break with past practice took place in 2001, when Congress used reconciliation to enact a large tax cut that greatly increased federal deficits and debt. Prior to 2001, every major reconciliation bill enacted into law reduced the deficit. In 2003 Congress used reconciliation to pass another round of deficit-increasing tax cuts.
  • If health reform is enacted in part through use of the reconciliation process, the reconciliation legislation will have to be designed so it does not add to the deficit. In 2007, the House and Senate adopted rules preventing Congress from using reconciliation to increase deficits and debt as was done in 2001 and 2003.
  • Since rising health costs are the single largest reason for projected long-run deficits, it is appropriate that health reform be considered through the reconciliation process.

Of course, there's an even simpler way to make the argument. By filibustering, Republicans are thwarting majority rule. Reconciliation, in which 50-plus-one senators can pass a law, would allow the democratic process to function.