Yesterday, Republicans emailed around an article in The Hill, claiming that budget reconciliation is "not suited" for healthcare reform. This excites Republicans because reconciliation is the Democrats' most plausible avenue to passing health care reform. Now that the Republicans can filibuster bills in the Senate, the Democrats' game plan is to pass the Senate bill through the House, and use the budget reconciliation process, which can't be filibustered, to enact changes to the Senate bill that the House demands. The Republican plan, in turn, is to portray such a move as vicious, partisan, and somehow wrong. Much of the drama of whether health care gets passed revolves around whether Republicans can spook Democrats out of using this procedure.
The Hill article quotes former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove, who was speaking on a conference call organized by the right-wing Galen Institute, which is basically a single-issue, anti-health care reform shop. Dove is quoted making general claims to the effect that reconciliation is unsuitable for health care reform:
"This process is not designed to do a lot of policy making and it would be very difficult to achieve a number of things that people want to achieve" in the healthcare reform legislation, Dove said. "This could be a very long, exhausting process."
It wasn't clear from the context whether Dove was talking about using reconciliation to pass an entire health care bill, or just to pass some change to it. Reconciliation is designed for measures that effect taxes and revenue. Dove is clearly correct that it would be very, very tricky to use reconciliation to pass an entire bill. But Democrats are only talking about using reconciliation as a supplement to the health care bill. Their plan is to use reconciliation to reduce the tax on expensive health care plans and replace it with some other tax, probably on high income earners, get rid of the special Medicaid subsidy for Nebraska, and other things that only pertain to taxes and spending, which is what reconciliation is designed for. So I called Dove to see if he could explain.
Here's where the story gets a little weird. Dove insisted to me that he was not in any way commenting on decisions that the current Senate parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, would be making. (Frumin and Dove worked together for many years.) I asked him about using reconciliation for straightforward revenue and outlay measures related to health care, and he refused to answer my question. He basically refused to tell me anything related to the Democrats' plan, and then told me our conversation was over. It was kind of surreal.
It sort of made me curious. Who is this guy? Well, it turns out, Robert Dove was Senate parliamentarian until 2001, when the Republicans fired him for making some rulings that slightly complicated their plan of using reconciliation to enact a huge tax cut. Evidently he doesn't hold a grudge. But the episode also puts some perspective on the debate about whether reconciliation is some goonish tactic. As I mentioned, the Republican campaign has made enormous inroads among the news media. (The New York Times has used the term "muscle" on at least three occasions to describe reconciliation.) But you know what's really an example of political muscle? Firing the parliamentarian when he makes a hostile ruling. By the way, that move created barely a ripple at the time. A news story reporting on the sacking of the parliamentarian reported that 13 Democrats continued to negotiate on the tax cut right through the parliamentarian firing, apparently unbothered at all. Quite a contrast with the current belief that using reconciliation to pass a few budget-related health care changes would amount to some kind of nuclear option.
Another random aside: About a month ago, I was invited to appear on the Dylan Ratigan program on MSNBC to discuss health care reform. Oddly, the one question I was asked was "Who is the Senate parliamentarian?" I replied, "Actually, I wrote my thesis on the guy," before confessing that I had no idea who he was. It was a strange moment -- how many people know the Senate parliamentarian's name? Why would they ask me? But now I've done extensive reporting into the Senate parliamentarian, and henceforth would like to make myself available to MSNBC or any other network to fill their Senate parliamentarian punditry needs.